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McCarthy reaches moment of truth in Speakership election

No more posturing, and no more wishful thinking: The House will vote for a Speaker on Tuesday afternoon, revealing whether House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) has the confidence of his conference to lead a new House GOP majority.

It is far from clear how the vote will play out. McCarthy faces vocal opposition from a handful of hard-line Republicans threatening to derail his bid despite his bending to their requests, while his allies maintain they will vote for no one other than McCarthy.

If no candidate wins a majority of votes on the first ballot, it will be the first time in a century that the House has gone to multiple votes for Speaker. With 222 Republicans to 212 Democrats, McCarthy can afford to lose just four votes, assuming every member votes for a candidate.

The 118th Congress kicks off at noon. After a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and a quorum call, the House will move straight into Speaker nomination speeches and a vote on who will hold the gavel.

McCarthy opponents for weeks have insisted that he does not have the support to be Speaker. While he won the House GOP Speaker nomination with 188 votes, another 31 went to Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and five voted for other candidates. 

Five House Republicans have strongly indicated they will not vote for McCarthy, and several more have withheld support for him. Biggs has estimated that around 20 Republicans will not vote for McCarthy.

Reasons for opposition are many. They include: disappointment at smaller-than-expected gains in the midterm elections, frustration at a McCarthy-aligned PAC getting involved in GOP primaries, demands for rules changes that would strip power from McCarthy and give more to rank-and-file members, a desire for a more aggressive stance on investigating the Biden administration and impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and a desire for a budget that significantly cuts federal spending. Opponents have also criticized McCarthy for his previous work with Democrats on spending measures.

At the core, the members withholding support for McCarthy say that those factors, as well as his approach to requests that were first made over the summer, add up to a lack of confidence.

“The problem is that people don’t trust Kevin McCarthy,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, told The Hill on Sunday. Perry has not said how he plans to vote on the Speakership as he continues to engage in negotiations.

Members had cautioned McCarthy months ago that the longer he waited to engage with the right flank, the more support he would lose.

“The fact that we are now approaching the eleventh hour is not the fault, or is not the responsibility, of his detractors. It’s his responsibility, and the blame lies with him,” Perry said. 

McCarthy allies, meanwhile, have grown frustrated by the opposition that they see as posturing, and worry that some rules change demands could backfire by empowering Democrats.

Some members are planning to wear “O.K.” buttons — for “Only Kevin,” as a response to the “Never Kevin” group — on Jan. 3.

“We are prepared to vote for him for as long as it takes,” Reps. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) and Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.), chair and vice chair of the more pragmatic House GOP Main Street Caucus, wrote in a letter on Friday.

“We won’t reward chaos,” the two added, explaining that any support for rules changes that McCarthy opponents are demanding “will be taken off the table if Kevin McCarthy is not expediently elected Speaker of the House on January 3.”

Over the weekend, McCarthy offered some concessions to critics with a House rules package. 

One of those was lowering the threshold for a move to “vacate the chair” — forcing a vote on ousting the Speaker — to just five Republican members, rather than a threshold of at least half of the House GOP conference that Republicans adopted in an internal rule in November. 

That procedural move made headlines when then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) made the motion in 2015, contributing to a House Freedom Caucus rebellion that ended with GOP Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) resigning from Congress later that year. 

But that’s not good enough for Perry and several of his colleagues, who say that any single member should be able to make the motion. More moderate members argue that reverting to that standard could empower Democrats.

The House is also set to create a House Judiciary Select Subcommittee on the “Weaponization of the Federal Government,” an apparent recognition of a request to form a “Church-style” committee to investigate alleged government abuses, in reference to a 1975 Senate select committee named for former Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) that investigated intelligence agencies.

But after a conference-wide call on the House rules on Sunday, a group of nine hard-line conservatives led by Perry released a letter saying that McCarthy’s response to their requests does not adequately address their requests.

“At this stage, it cannot be a surprise that expressions of vague hopes reflected in far too many of the crucial points still under debate are insufficient,” said the group of nine, which notably is in addition to the five members considered to be in the “Never Kevin” camp.

McCarthy allies also point out that there is no public viable GOP alternative to his candidacy for Speaker. They add that it would be unfair, and set a bad precedent for the Speakership, to reveal an eleventh-hour candidate.

Biggs is running as a protest challenger to McCarthy, but not even his fellow McCarthy opponents think he is a viable GOP alternative to McCarthy for Speaker.

“A lot will be revealed on Jan. 3,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who has indicated he will not vote for McCarthy, said before Congress departed in December.

Some McCarthy detractors have suggested that a consensus alternative will emerge once it is clear that the GOP leader cannot win the gavel, but they have not all publicly rallied behind a potential alternative.

Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), who Republicans elected to be House majority leader, is an obvious potential alternative to McCarthy. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has pushed Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) as a potential alternative. Both Scalise and Jordan, however, say they support McCarthy. 

The turmoil over the Speaker’s race has led to a delay in Republicans organizing their committees and electing chairs in contested races. Bills player Damar Hamlin’s toy drive raises more than $3M after on-field cardiac arrest The Republicans voting against McCarthy

“It’s worth a few days or whatever time that it takes to get the best person to lead us, and I’m confident we’ll do that,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who has said we will not support McCarthy, told The Hill before lawmakers left for the holidays.

The last time the Speaker vote went to multiple ballots was in December 1923, when holdouts pushing for rules changes forced nine ballots over three days before Republican Frederick Gillett (Mass.) won a third term as Speaker. 

Before that, 13 other Speaker elections went to multiple ballots, all before the Civil War. In the longest Speakership election, members cast 133 ballots over two months.

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