The 2023 election isn’t taking place in a battleground such as Arizona or Pennsylvania. It’s taking place in Washington, D.C., where Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is laboring mightily to become speaker of the House — a job he has long coveted.
McCarthy will require the support of a majority all members when the House votes to elect him speaker. And with the party’s narrow hold on power, even a small number of Republican defections could imperil his bid. The uncertainty over McCarthy’s fate is roiling the GOP while helping Democrats who want to portray Republicans as dysfunctional and hopelessly in thrall to extremists.
Most of the action is behind closed doors. But McCarthy’s allies and a rump faction of ultraconservative lawmakers have been dueling one another through the Beltway news media as January approaches, giving us glimpses of the jockeying and negotiations. The Democrats are trying to push through a crucial year end spending bill that House Republicans almost unanimously oppose.
The past week has brought a few developments — many of them baffling even to Capitol Hill insiders. On December 9, seven hardline conservatives issued a lengthy list to the speaker that mostly involved unclear procedural rules. A group of close to 50 moderates aligned in support of McCarthy stated that they would not be supportive of some of these ideas on Tuesday. On Wednesday, news broke of a reorganization. Different Five anti-McCarthy activists led by Rep. Andy Biggs, Arizona, had made an agreement to vote in a group. If they stick together, these five can defeat McCarthy’s gavel. However, it is not clear how he manages to get them to agree.
But it’s also not clear that Republicans have another viable option. To reinforce that point, McCarthy’s allies have begun distributing buttons saying “O.K.” — as in “Only Kevin.”
Annie Karni is a congressional correspondent at The New York Times and has been closely following the race. This is the conversation we had, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Q: What size is a faction? McCarthy holdouts? Are the Never Kevins just the hardcores like Biggs or are there others?
A: First, let me say that nobody knows if McCarthy will do this. Reporters are asking Republicans. Reporters are being asked by Republicans. These are the most intelligent people who are watching closely and will not make predictions. McCarthy is very tight-lipped about his plans. He’s not including other members of his leadership team in his deliberations or his calculations.
Publicly, the Never Kevins are not a large group: At most four people have stated they are hard no.
But 31 House Republicans voted “no” on nominating McCarthy for the position back in November. How many were doing it to make a point and ultimately support McCarthy? How many are still at “no” but keeping it to themselves, at least for now? McCarthy doesn’t necessarily know the entire list of people he has to win over.
Q: Have any of the 31 been reelected by McCarthy?
A: That’s hard to answer, since it was a secret ballot and we don’t know who those 31 Republicans were. But it’s not a great sign for him that in the same vote, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana had unanimous support in his race to become the No. 2 House Republican next Year. In other words, for these people, it isn’t an attack on the leadership. McCarthy is under attack.
However, it could not be taken to mean as much. This is a comparison of how the secret ballot phase has been conducted in the past for legislators who won the speakership. In 2015, Paul Ryan lost 43 votes during the secret ballot phase. In 2015, Paul Ryan lost 43 votes in the secret ballot phase. Nancy Pelosi was defeated by 32 votes. They were both victorious, and each became the speaker.
Q: What are die-hards looking for? Is this just “blackmail,” as This week, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, wrote this? Is there an ideal outcome they are looking for?
A: This is why McCarthy finds it more challenging. He must deal with something that no Democrat has faced: a large group sent to Congress specifically to obstruct. Some of the people he is attempting to bargain with don’t seem to have a price. They’re not motivated by legislating as much as they are about shrinking the federal government, or upending it completely.
That being said, the real sticking point is what’s known in congressional jargon as the “motion to vacate,” a term we try to avoid using in news stories because it’s meaningless to most readers. It would change the rules to allow any member of Congress to call for a quick floor vote to remove the speaker. McCarthy is being urged by the holdouts to agree to allow such a vote. So far, that’s been a nonstarter for him; he understandably views the prospect as handing his enemies a loaded political weapon.
Bottom line: McCarthy seems to be dealing with chaos agents. This makes his process much more difficult than it was in 2018. She had to negotiate her way into the speakership back then. But she was dealing in a caucus that included members with specific demands she could address.
Biggs is likely to be McCarthy’s alternative. According to Beltway gossip, if McCarthy fails the House floor vote, someone with more power than Biggs (like Scalise or Rep. Patrick McHenry from North Carolina) could be drafted to become a speaker candidate.
Q: This week you reported with Maggie Haberman, Catie Edmondson and that Donald Trump called House members You can ask them to back McCarthy. Was there anything you could learn about McCarthy’s arguments and the resonance of his arguments?
A: Yes. We reported Trump calling members who are at best ambivalent about McCarthy being the speaker.
We know that Trump is not too excited about McCarthy. But, many of his closest friends are very pro McCarthy. Nonetheless, Trump has been calling Republican lawmakers because he doesn’t see a viable alternative and believes McCarthy is better for him than an improbable scenario where the job goes to a moderate who can draw some Democratic votes.
Trump’s thinking is in line with how a lot of people are viewing this: OK, so you don’t love Kevin McCarthy. But what’s the real alternative? Trump and McCarthy’s relationship has been rocky over the past few years but is usually cordial. Friendly. It’s not that close. It’s not terrible.
Also, it’s good to remember that Trump officially endorsed McCarthy’s bid for speaker. So it’s in his interest, in terms of his personal scorecard of wins and losses, to have his endorsee pull this out.
One more dynamic worth a fleeting mention: Trump is making calls for McCarthy, and yet one of Trump’s biggest allies in Congress, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, is one of the most vocal obstacles to McCarthy’s bid. Why can’t Trump get Gaetz to cease and desist? Trump has yet to make a big public campaign on McCarthy’s behalf that would resonate with constituents of these members and put more pressure on them.
Q: McCarthy has made many concessions so far, mostly on obscure topics like funding formulas. McCarthy has also admitted far-right figures, such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar of Arizona, and promised to reinstate their committee assignments. Is that a bargain worth it?
A: Definitely. McCarthy is interested in speaking. He’s known as an aggressive fundraiser, an affable people person, and generally a go-along-to-get-along guy. He’s not an ideologue, which means that he’s less scary to some Democrats than, say, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. But it also means he’s not bothered by making compromises for these far-right members, if it means getting where he wants.
Greene has publicly backed McCarthy. It’s funny — before the midterm elections, when there were questions about what could happen to thwart McCarthy’s plans to become speaker, it seemed like Greene or Trump could pose the biggest problems for him. If Trump, for instance, turned on him, the thinking was that Trump’s influence on the far right of the Republican Party would cost McCarthy critical votes.
We are now, Trump and Greene in Team McCarthy. And yet he’s still working hard to close the sale.
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