Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s quest to become Speaker of the House of Representatives appears to be increasingly threatened by a small but vocal group of conservative hardliners, raising the possibility that the Californian congressman could become the first nominee in a century to not win the position on a first-round vote.
“We’re still continuing to talk, but they have not moved,” McCarthy told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Friday. “Remember, this is a presidential year, so you only have so many months to really get out there and govern.”
McCarthy’s speakership was meant to be a foregone conclusion. But when November’s promised “red wave” became a trickle, McCarthy suddenly found himself with a slim majority, forcing him to placate an influential cadre of far-right colleagues with axes to grind. He can only afford four Republican defectors, but five GOP representatives—Matt Gaetz of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Bob Good of Virginia, and Matt Rosendale of Montana—have signaled they will vote against McCarthy, denying him of the 218 votes he’ll need to win the position when Congress votes on January 3.
The opponents, most of whom are members of the far-right Freedom Caucus, are demanding changes that would dilute the power of the Speaker and make it easier for them to draft and amend legislation. They also want to reinstate a rule allowing any representative to bring a motion to vacate the chair, removing the Speaker from his position.
Some Republicans worry that a protracted fight could weaken the newfound majority. “The fear is, that if we stumble out of the gate,” McCarthy ally Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) told the AP, then Republican voters “will revolt over that and they will feel let down.”
Citing Gaetz as a source, the New York Post reported on Saturday that Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who is significantly more conservative than McCarthy, may serve as a compromise if McCarthy can’t win a majority. Scalise, who once reportedly referred to himself as “like David Duke without the baggage,” isn’t currently running for Speaker and is backing McCarthy, whom he has served as a top member of party leadership. “Obviously our focus is on getting it resolved by January 3rd,” he told CNN last week. “And there’s a lot of conversations that everybody has been having.”
Last week, former president Donald Trump told Breitbart News that McCarthy “deserves the shot.” He added, “Hopefully, he’s going to be very strong and going to be very good and he’s going to do what everybody wants.”