Skip to content

Late-night talks yield no breakthrough in speaker battle

Trust issues complicate McCarthy's path, but some detractors say there's still an opening

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., center, is seen on the House floor during a vote Wednesday in which House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., did not receive enough votes to become Speaker of the House.
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., center, is seen on the House floor during a vote Wednesday in which House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., did not receive enough votes to become Speaker of the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A few of Kevin McCarthy‘s opponents say they’ll never vote for him, while others have continued negotiating with the California Republican.

But they overwhelmingly agree they’d rather have a speaker who they trust to execute the institutional changes they’re seeking. And McCarthy is not someone that most of the 20 opponents, primarily members of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, trust.

“I, like many, have trust issues with the leader. But I wouldn’t say that everything is so finite that there’s no conceivable way,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry said in a brief interview after the chamber adjourned Wednesday evening for the second time in two days.

But there are a few GOP detractors who have said they will never vote for McCarthy, including Florida’s Matt Gaetz, Virginia’s Bob Good, Colorado’s Lauren Boebert and Arizona’s Eli Crane and Andy Biggs. That’s enough votes to block McCarthy from reaching a 218-vote majority, unless some of his detractors vote “present” and thereby lower the total he needs to win the gavel.

Biggs cited “progress” Wednesday, but the progress he sees is rallying around an alternative speaker.

The others also largely prefer someone other than McCarthy get the job, but that’s been difficult for them to negotiate.

McCarthy is vowing to stay in the race as long as it takes to win, and many of his allies say they won’t vote for anyone else as long as he is still running. Some are so frustrated they say they’d never support anyone the Freedom Caucus wants to be speaker, even if it’s a member they would otherwise like for the role.

The opponents’ assessments on the likelihood of a deal coming together where they could support McCarthy have ranged from South Carolina Ralph Norman saying “miracles do happen,” to Tennessee Republican Andy Ogles describing “great conversations” with McCarthy and others that occurred Wednesday and will continue Thursday.

But their commitment to the cause — changing the way the House operates, from its rules to campaigns — is steadfast. Ogles said he and “many, many others are going to be unyielding until we achieve substantive change.”

One opponent went as far as to say he’d consider resigning if the group doesn’t succeed in changing the dysfunction that has slowly chipped power away from rank-and-file members and consolidated it in leadership.

“We’re going to either see improvement up here the same way we made remarkable improvements in North Carolina in the state legislature, or I’m out,” Dan Bishop, who hails from that state, said. He said he’s willing to make that threat because he’s “older than the average bear” and “not going to stay up here for decades.”

Bishop clarified Thursday that he didn’t plan to leave Congress imminently and wouldn’t exit during his current term. “I’m not leaving,” he said on the floor, correcting a Fox News article citing this report that mischaracterized his remarks.

Bishop said Wednesday his concern with McCarthy is that after 14 years in leadership, he’s been saying the same things about existential threats to the country and “every one of them has gotten worse not better.”

Like fellow holdouts, Bishop pointed to Republicans’ Tuesday morning conference meeting as hardening opposition. He said McCarthy conducted himself in an “unseemly” way and nearly convinced him to take a “never Kevin” position.

Opponents strategize

Most of the 20 opponents strategized Wednesday night in Ogles’ office. They left largely declining to say what they discussed.

Norman said the detractors would not support a motion to adjourn when the House reconvenes at noon Thursday and that they would continue to vote for Florida Republican Byron Donalds.

[House resumes speaker votes with new alternative, similar result]

The House adjourned twice Wednesday to continue negotiations after the sixth unsuccessful ballot. McCarthy said he didn’t see much use in holding more votes Thursday unless there was a resolution.

But his opponents aren’t planning to let that happen, as they hope to grow their numbers on a seventh ballot.

“I think we’ll stick with the same nominee tomorrow, and I think we’ll probably have at least 20 votes tomorrow,” Georgia Republican Andrew Clyde said after the strategy session. “We may have more.”

New rules package?

Earlier Wednesday, Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a McCarthy backer, laid out what could be a path to a deal, though he said no formal offers had been made. He said there could be agreement on an updated rules package that would be emailed to lawmakers, and then 72 hours would likely have to go by before the speaker vote would be wrapped up.

“Kevin is not dropping out,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s gonna keep roughly 200 votes for as long as it takes. So something’s gotta give, so I think cooler heads are starting to prevail. And they’re starting to come to an agreement on a lot of issues.”

One rule change that some of McCarthy’s detractors have sought would allow any single lawmaker to file a privileged motion to vacate, a move that would force a vote that could oust the speaker.

CNN reported Wednesday night that McCarthy had agreed to that one-member threshold along with commitments to give Freedom Caucus members seats on the Rules Committee and allow a floor vote on congressional term limits.

Leaving the meeting with fellow McCarthy opponents, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, declined to talk about private conversations on rules changes but pointed to the CNN report as unhelpful.

“This whole thing where people are talking about conversations — I’m not talking about ‘em, you know,” he said. “And the leadership’s office has got to be careful because they’re out there talking about things that were supposed to be private conversations, all of which can potentially undermine deals.”

Roy said both sides remain “a long ways away” from any sort of resolution, particularly after damage done during Tuesday’s conference meeting.

In that meeting and later to reporters, McCarthy characterized his opponents as selfishly asking for certain committee chairmanships and seats. The holdouts said that wasn’t true, and that McCarthy had solicited a list of conservatives who’d be willing to serve on certain panels to meet the opponents’ request for proportional representation on committees.

Gaetz said earlier Wednesday that McCarthy apologized for being dishonest but declined to make that apology public like the initial remarks. “A real man will apologize publicly if they’ve said things that are not true publicly. And we’re not getting that from Mr. McCarthy,” Gaetz said. “But look, he’s a desperate guy whose vote share is dropping with every subsequent vote, and I’m ready to vote all night or week or month and never for that person.”

The one-member threshold for forcing a vote to oust the speaker — down from requiring five lawmakers banded together to force a vote, as McCarthy proposed earlier — has had a mixed reception among McCarthy allies.

Nebraska Republican Don Bacon has already complained about the concession to go down to five and is suggesting McCarthy should negotiate with Democrats rather than give into further Freedom Caucus demands.

[Day Two of speaker drama begins with no end in sight]

Fitzpatrick said after meeting with holdouts that he’s “comfortable that they would be very, very hesitant to misuse it,” pointing out he doesn’t believe conservatives would want to derail investigations they back or disrupt a presidential election.

He said he didn’t believe lowering the threshold from five to one would lose the leader votes among his supporters.

Adjournment votes

The House held six ballots in the speaker’s election, three each on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The House adjourned for three-and-a-half hours Wednesday before coming back and voting again to adjourn. Democrats objected to the evening vote to adjourn and requested a roll call vote, which Republicans defeated, 216-214.

Biggs, Crane, Gaetz and Boebert were the four Republicans who voted against adjourning. Four members, two from each party, missed the vote but likely would’ve canceled each other out.

McCarthy and others joked after the adjournment vote that the party was unified on the first roll call back in the majority.

[Opponents deny McCarthy speaker’s gavel on first vote]

“We just had our first win on the floor in four years,” Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole said, noting members were shouting after that they’re 1-0.

Evening meeting

During the break between adjournment votes, McCarthy met with some of his allies and holdouts in Majority Whip Tom Emmer’s office on the first floor of the Capitol.

Norman said it was the first time the two sides had a meeting as a smaller group. He said there was “a lot to digest” afterward.

McCarthy said leaving that meeting that the two sides hadn’t reached a deal yet but were making progress.

“I don’t think voting tonight does any difference, but I think a vote in the future will,” he said.

Perry also described the meeting as “productive.” But he acknowledged that one of the challenges in getting to a deal is ensuring that given the trust issues, McCarthy needs to go beyond commitments and implement structures that will ensure members can hold him to what he says he will do.

“That circumstance — that anything can be waived at any time regardless of how powerful or strong the rules are — is a concern,” he said.

‘Trying to get to yes’

Several supporters of McCarthy left the meeting optimistic. South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson, who on Tuesday said exasperation among Republicans was growing over lack of clarity around holdouts’ requests, said Wednesday he had “additional clarity” on outstanding issues and where both sides could make progress.

“I wouldn’t say there was a breakthrough, but I would say good faith people are trying to get to yes,” Johnson said, adding that holdouts showing up and seeking resolution of their concerns was “a sign that people are still at the table.”

While Johnson declined to get into details of outstanding issues, he said there’s an ongoing conversation about how to make sure committees and leadership reflect the full Republican conference. He added Wednesday’s meeting was more about “taking the temperature” and no specific offers were exchanged that could deliver votes for McCarthy.

While many members characterized the talks as constructive, Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, said an agreement could still be days away.

“​​I told my wife I don’t plan on being home this weekend,” he said.

Ellyn Ferguson, David Jordan, Daniela Altimari, David Lerman and Valerie Yurk contributed to this report.

Recent Stories

Security fence to go up at Capitol for State of the Union

California has no shortage of key House races on Tuesday

Alabama, Arkansas races to watch on Super Tuesday

Over the Hill — Congressional Hits and Misses

House GOP reverses course on Jan. 6 footage, will no longer blur faces

Three questions North Carolina primaries may answer