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Opponents deny McCarthy speaker’s gavel on first vote

Historic denial marks contentious start in Republican-controlled House

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy sits as colleagues stand around him applauding after he was nominated for speaker in the 118th Congress.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy sits as colleagues stand around him applauding after he was nominated for speaker in the 118th Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy fell 15 votes short of securing the speaker’s gavel Tuesday in the first of what could be several ballots to determine who will lead the chamber for the next two years.

A second ballot is about to get underway.

Members of the 118th Congress have yet to be officially sworn into office — that occurs after a speaker is elected — but have already made history. This is the first time in a century that a speaker election has not concluded in a single ballot and only the 15th time out of 127 speaker elections held since 1789.

The last time multiple ballots occurred in a speaker election was in 1923, when it took nine ballots to elect Massachusetts Republican Frederick Huntington Gillett to his third and final term as speaker. The other 13 multiple-ballot elections occurred before the Civil War, “when party divisions were more nebulous,” according to the House historian.

It’s unclear at this stage how many ballots it will take to elect a speaker and whether McCarthy can find a way to sway enough of his opponents to be the ultimate victor. But if he does, he’ll still have to govern with a slim 222-seat majority where his detractors can make passing legislation difficult.

The 19 Republican members-elect who did not support McCarthy for speaker are:

Ten of the 19 Republican McCarthy opponents voted for Biggs.

Boebert, Cloud, Luna, Miller, Ogles and Self voted for Ohio GOP Rep Jim Jordan; Brecheen voted for Indiana GOP Rep. Jim Banks; Roy voted for Florida GOP Rep. Byron Donalds; and Harris voted for Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican who isn’t returning to Congress after unsuccessfully running for governor.

The threshold to secure the speaker’s gavel on the first ballot was 218 votes. McCarthy received 203 votes from the other Republicans voting. And Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries received 212 votes, all from his party.

Most of McCarthy’s opponents are associated with the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which is known for pushing former Speaker John A. Boehner into an early retirement in 2015 and opposing McCarthy’s bid to succeed him. McCarthy has since worked to amend his frosty relationships with the Freedom Caucus, with mixed success.

Jordan, one of McCarthy’s most fervent opponents from that time period, supported him on the first ballot Tuesday. Jordan, the founding chairman of the Freedom Caucus, unsuccessfully ran against McCarthy for minority leader four years ago. They made amends two years later when McCarthy helped elevate Jordan to the only role he coveted more, the top GOP slot on the Judiciary Committee.

But the two most recent Freedom Caucus chairs, Perry and Biggs, have remained skeptical and ultimately helped coordinate a somewhat fractured opposition effort against him that held through the initial floor election.

Biggs ran against McCarthy during the Republican Conference’s secret-ballot leadership elections held Nov. 15. McCarthy won the conference’s nomination for speaker 188-31, with another five Republicans writing in a name other than McCarthy or Biggs.

Alternative candidates

Biggs offered to serve again as an alternative candidate for the first ballot of the floor election. But he and other McCarthy opponents have said they expect other alternative speaker candidates to emerge once it’s clear the California Republican can’t get enough votes to win.

“If it goes three, four, five ballots, he’s done,” Biggs said Monday on the “War Room” podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist of Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential campaign.

After the first ballot Tuesday, Biggs tweeted that “McCarthy should stand down and allow us to select someone else in the next ballot.”

McCarthy signaled no intentions to drop out in a brief gaggle with reporters after the first ballot.

“We have certain members right now who think they can use a small majority to get themselves the gavel,” he said. “That’s not how it works.”

Good has repeatedly said the McCarthy opponents have a preferred speaker alternative in mind that they’ve spoken with, but they didn’t want to name the person ahead of the initial vote and risk them being subjected to attacks and retaliation.

“I think you will see on the second ballot an increasing number of members vote for a true candidate who can represent the conservative center of the conference, can motivate the base, inspire Republicans across the country, get to 218 votes, bring our conference together to fight against the radical Democrat agenda,” he said Sunday in a Fox News interview.

After the first ballot, Good told reporters he would vote for Jordan and expects he’ll “pick up a number of votes” from other McCarthy opponents.

Gaetz predicted in a Daily Caller op-ed that the speaker election “will take several ballots and possibly many days.”

“After internal debate, Republicans will come together and pick the right leader for the role and that should not be Kevin McCarthy,” he wrote.

McCarthy has vowed not to drop out of contention and fight on the floor as long as it takes to secure the speakership. And a sizable number of his allies have pledged to vote for “only Kevin,” as long as it takes to elect him.

Backup plan?

But if the speaker’s election drags out for days with no one budging, members of the Republican Main Street Caucus, the Republican Governance Group and the Problem Solvers Caucus have a backup plan. They would team up with Democrats to nominate retiring Michigan GOP Rep. Fred Upton for speaker. The position does not need to be held by a lawmaker, but no Congress has ever elected a speaker who wasn’t also serving as a member.

McCarthy can lose no more than four Republican votes to another candidate if he wants to eke out a win. However, convincing opponents to vote “present” in future ballots, or to skip the vote altogether, would be an alternative way to lower the majority threshold he needs to obtain, since only members voting for someone by name count toward determining a majority.

Biggs, Gaetz and Good have all explicitly said they’ll likely never vote for McCarthy.

Others, like Rosendale and Perry, also seem steadfast in their opposition, citing their general distrust of McCarthy.

Some of McCarthy’s opponents in the Freedom Caucus had hoped to leverage their votes in the speaker’s race for rules changes they wanted. McCarthy agreed to some of their demands, including a handful of requested changes in a draft rules package released Sunday night. But some of his detractors said his concessions were effectively too little, too late.

As the speaker’s race heads into multiple ballots, McCarthy could still try to offer more rule changes to sway his opponents. But some changes the Freedom Caucus requested, like banning earmarks, are unpopular with the majority of his conference and would be hard to get enough votes for, so McCarthy only has so much room to operate given he can’t lose more than four votes on the rules package either.

Perry said in a statement Tuesday that conservatives have worked for months to change the status quo but that McCarthy has “sidelined or resisted” most of their demands. “Any perceived progress has often been vague or contained loopholes that further amplified concerns as to the sincerity of the promises being made,” he said.

Offer of 218 votes declined

McCarthy “declined” an offer conservatives made to get him 218 votes in the speaker’s race, Perry said.

Specifically, he said conservatives asked for “firm commitments” that the House would vote on a balanced budget, a “fair tax” bill that would gut the IRS and replace the income tax system with a national sales tax, border legislation from Texas Republicans and congressional term limits.

They also requested individual earmarks be subject to a two-thirds majority vote before being added to spending bills and that any amendments to cut spending receive guaranteed floor votes.

McCarthy denied those requests and “balked” at specific Freedom Caucus member names Perry provided to McCarthy for service on various committees. McCarthy had promised to offer fair representation for conservatives on committees.

Finally, conservatives have demanded GOP leaders and their affiliated political action committees not get involved in open primary elections, after having worked to defeat conservative candidates in the past. McCarthy denied such involvement, Perry said.

Perry and McCarthy reportedly got into a screaming match during a Republican Conference meeting Tuesday morning, which they both effectively confirmed afterward.

“This meeting wasn’t about trying to inform people about what it takes to get to 218 and ask what you want,” Perry said of McCarthy. “This was about a beatdown and a simulated unity in the room, which really doesn’t exist.”

McCarthy said he rejected the request to provide “certain members with certain positions, certain gavels” and demands on the budget because he’s fighting for the American people and the larger GOP conference, not a few individuals.

“There’s times we’re going to have to argue with members if they are looking for only positions for themselves, not for the country,” he said.

Norman, meanwhile, has been primarily focused on securing “guarantees” from any speaker candidate that Republicans will make a more serious effort to implement fiscal discipline.

“At a minimum that includes a genuine, legitimate effort to determine what federal spending can be responsibly cut, how we’re going to balance the budget in a reasonable amount of time, and how we’re going to pay down this outrageous debt,” he wrote in a blog post Sunday. Norman said he wants “guaranteed votes on critical pieces of that plan” and a leadership team that will leverage must-pass legislation to get Democrats to agree to GOP priorities.

Rosendale said in a Twitter thread Sunday that McCarthy has not shown he’s willing to fight for conservative legislative priorities.

“McCarthy had multiple opportunities to demonstrate leadership abilities and advocate for conservative policies,” Rosendale said. “He had leverage to advance common-sense reforms during the CR, NDAA, & infrastructure legislation.”

Aidan Quigley, Daniela Altimari and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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