U.S. House Republicans courted chaos Tuesday on the opening day of the new Congress, with GOP leader Kevin McCarthy sparring behind closed doors with a group of right-flank conservatives who are refusing to give him their votes to become House speaker.
Even before Congress convened, the scene playing out on Capitol Hill was one of upheaval and uncertainty. The standoff means McCarthy, after having led his party to a narrow Republican majority, was grasping for his political survival, trying to avoid being the first nominee for speaker in 100 years to fail to win an initial vote for the gavel.
McCarthy arrived at a closed door meeting of House Republicans and vowed to fight to the finish — even if it takes multiple tries in a high-stakes public spectacle that would underscore divisions in his party and weaken its leadership in the first days of the new Congress.
“We went out to the American public with a commitment to America to fight for them, not for a few members,” said McCarthy, as he entered a closed-door morning meeting of House Republicans lashing out at detractors.
Lawmakers were convening Tuesday in a new era of divided government as Democrats relinquish control of the House after midterm election losses. While the Senate remains in Democratic hands, barely, House Republicans were eager to confront President Joe Biden’s agenda after two years of a Democratic Party monopoly on power in Washington.
But first, House Republicans must elect a speaker, second in succession to the presidency.
McCarthy is in line to replace Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but he heads into the vote with no guarantee of success. He faces entrenched detractors within his own ranks. Despite attempts to cajole, harangue and win them over — even with an endorsement from former president Donald Trump — McCarthy has fallen short.
“This is a lot more important than about one person,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican leadership senior aide. “It’s about whether Republicans will be able to govern.”
House Republicans huddled behind closed doors, ahead of the floor action, as newly elected lawmakers arrive for what’s traditionally a celebratory day. Families in tow, the members of the new Congress prepare to be sworn into the House and Senate for the start of the two-year legislative session.
A new generation of Trump-aligned Republicans are leading the opposition to McCarthy, inspired by the former president’s Make America Great Again slogan. They don’t think McCarthy is conservative enough or tough enough to battle Democrats. It’s reminiscent of the last time Republicans took back the House majority, after the 2010 midterms, when the tea-party class ushered in a new era of hardball politics, eventually sending Speaker John Boehner to an early retirement.
Some of the staunch Republican conservatives were challenging McCarthy in the private session. He pushed back, according to a Republican in the room and granted anonymity to discuss the closed-door session.
Typically it takes a majority of the House’s 435 members, 218 votes, to become the speaker. With just a slim 222-seat majority, McCarthy can afford only a handful of detractors. A speaker can win with fewer than 218 votes, as Pelosi and Boehner did, if some lawmakers are absent or simply vote present.
But McCarthy has failed to win over a core — and potentially growing — group of right-flank Republicans led by the conservative Freedom Caucus, despite weeks of closed-door meetings and promised changes to the House rules. Nearly a dozen Republicans have publicly raised concerns about McCarthy.
“Kevin McCarthy doesn’t have the 218 votes to be speaker,” Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a leader in Trump’s efforts to challenge the 2020 election, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Unless something dramatically changes, that’s where we’re going to be.”
Late Monday evening, McCarthy met with Perry in the speaker’s office at the Capitol, a Republican aide confirmed on condition of anonymity to discuss the private session.
But there appeared to be no resolution.
Perry said in a statement early Tuesday: “Kevin McCarthy had an opportunity to be speaker of the House. He rejected it.”
Yet the prospect of holdouts causing havoc on Day One has launched a counter-offensive from Republicans who are frustrated that the detractors threaten the workings of the new Congress.
A sizable but less vocal group of McCarthy supporters started its own campaign, “Only Kevin,” as a way to shut down the opposition and pledge their support only to him.
A viable challenger to McCarthy had yet to emerge. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a former leader of the Freedom Caucus, was running against McCarthy as a conservative option, but was not expected to pull a majority. McCarthy defeated him in the November nominating contest, 188-31.
The second-ranking House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, would be an obvious next choice, a conservative widely liked by his colleagues and seen by some as a hero after surviving a brutal mass shooting during a congressional baseball game practice in 2017.
Once rivals, McCarthy and Scalise have become a team. Scalise’s office rejected as “false” a suggestion Monday by another Republican that Scalise was making calls about the speaker’s race.
McCarthy vowed to fight to the finish, going multiple rounds of painstaking floor votes — a sight unseen in Congress since the disputed speaker’s race of 1923.
“It would be nice if we can be ready to go on Jan. 3,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who is set to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “But you know, if it doesn’t happen on the first ballot, that’s when that just pushes things back.”
Without a speaker, the House cannot fully form — naming its committee chairmen, engaging in floor proceedings and launching the investigations of the Biden administration that are expected to be core to the Republicans’ agenda.
The upheaval in the House on the first day of the new session could be in stark contrast to the other side of the Capitol, where Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell will officially become the chamber’s longest-serving party leader in history.
Despite being in the minority in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 51-49 majority, McConnell could prove to be a viable partner as Biden seeks bipartisan victories in the new era of divided government. The two men were expected to appear together later in the week in the GOP leader’s home state of Kentucky to celebrate federal infrastructure investment in a vital bridge that connects Kentucky and Ohio.
McCarthy’s candidacy for speaker should have been an almost sure thing. Affable and approachable, he led his party into the majority, having raised millions of campaign dollars and traveled the country to recruit many of the newer lawmakers to run for office.
Yet McCarthy has been here before, abruptly dropping out of the speaker’s race in 2015 when it was clear he did not have support from conservatives to replace Boehner.
One core ask from the holdouts this time is that McCarthy reinstate a rule that allows any single lawmaker to make a “motion to vacate the chair” — in short, to call a vote to remove the speaker from office.
Pelosi eliminated the rule after conservatives used it to threaten Boehner’s ouster, but McCarthy agreed to add it back in — but at a higher threshold, requiring at least five lawmakers to sign on to the motion.
“I will work with everyone in our party to build conservative consensus,” McCarthy wrote in a weekend letter to colleagues.
As McCarthy convened a New Year’s Day conference call with Republican lawmakers to unveil the new House rules package, Perry dashed off a fresh letter of concerns signed by eight others Republicans that the changes do not go far enough.