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Kevin McCarthy struggles to establish his candidacy for speaker as the vote looms


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House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his allies have spent the past 72 hours on the phones trying to save his career goal of becoming House speaker on Tuesday as Republicans continue to debate whether he deserves first place.

Although the vast majority of Republicans want McCarthy to be speaker, roughly 15 have put the outcome in serious doubt. McCarthy can only afford to lose four Republicans in Tuesday’s vote, and the razor-thin margin has emboldened staunch conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, who have made specific demands in exchange for their votes.

If McCarthy fails to win the gavel on Tuesday’s first ballot, it will be a historic loss: No leader running for speaker has lost a first-round vote in a century.

“Two trains going 100 miles an hour and everybody’s wondering: Who’s going to survive?” said one senior GOP aide, trying to capture the current mood at the conference.

Five Republicans have remained firm in their opposition to McCarthy or are leaning “no” after elections. Among them is Rep. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), who lost to McCarthy in a closed-door vote in November but will publicly challenge him on the field Tuesday.

Although McCarthy has made numerous concessions in an effort to win their votes, including changes to a provision that could limit his time as speaker, nine additional Republicans signed a letter late Sunday calling McCarthy’s proposal “inadequate,” further signaling that the climb he remains uncertain.

“The times call for a radical departure from the status quo — not a continuation of past and ongoing Republican failures,” the nine wrote of McCarthy.

In response, McCarthy pledged in a letter to colleagues to “work with everyone in our party to build a conservative consensus,” but stressed the need for the conference to unite around a proposed set of rules that will dictate how the House is governed for the next two years.

“It is time for our new Republican majority to embrace these bold reforms and move forward as one,” McCarthy wrote. “That’s why on Jan. 3 — and every day after that — I’m ready to be judged not by my words, but by my actions as chairman.”

Privately, McCarthy remains steadfast, keeping some last-ditch tactics at his disposal as he intends to remain on the floor Tuesday for as long as it may take to be elected, according to several lawmakers who, like others for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private and ongoing deliberations .

“To use his words, if they’re playing chicken, he’s ripped the steering wheel off the dashboard and onto the floor,” said one Republican lawmaker, paraphrasing a recent McCarthy joke.

McCarthy’s eventual failure to win the necessary 218 votes to become speaker could derail the 16-year congressional career he has worked to get to this point. Although he is known for his ability to barter favors in hopes of gaining credibility, his quest may be in vain if he fails to overcome the demands of some who seek to weaken the speaker’s power.

McCarthy, who entered the leadership ranks just two years after he was first elected in 2007, had a front-row seat to how the Freedom Caucus influenced the demise of speakerships like John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) , as well as Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis). Seeing how both men tried to ostracize him freedom faction of the mainstream Republican Party, McCarthy instead embraced the group, even after Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) in 2015 led the group in opposition to McCarthy succeeds Boehner as top Republican.

“[McCarthy is] a guy with a very strong connection,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who is close friends with McCarthy. “Most Congress leaders, the higher they climb, the less they listen. Kevin was the exact opposite and that was the secret of his success.

McCarthy won Jordan’s trust, as well as that of others in the Freedom Caucus, after incorporating their ideological perspectives into broader conference conversations over the years and giving some lawmakers key commissions.

He vowed to continue that commitment, telling his colleagues: “I will use the key panels I have chosen to ensure that they more accurately reflect the ideological makeup of our conference, and I will advocate for the same when it comes to the membership of the standing committees.”

Most recently, McCarthy brought together key lawmakers from across the conference’s ideological factions to discuss how the House should function and held multiple conference-wide discussions before voting to include specific rules.

But the promises, whether on paper or promised behind closed doors over the past two months, have yet to move the handful of Republicans who oppose him. Today’s Freedom Caucus includes more zealous allies of former President Donald Trump who see McCarthy as part of the “establishment” problem, while others fear the House will continue to operate in a way that strengthens leadership and weakens membership. But even Trump endorsed McCarthy as his choice for speaker.

The Freedom Caucus’ takeover of Boehner and Ryan was a key reason McCarthy and the House GOP’s largest super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, are working to elect more moderate candidates seen as more likely in this year’s midterm elections. – tend to rule. But this intervention, as first reported by The Washington Postonly added to the skepticism that the hardliners of the Liberty faction already had about McCarthy’s purely conservative credentials.

Regarding the package of rules proposed by the GOP leadership, the nine conservatives noted in their letter on Sunday that it “fails to fully address the problem of leadership working to win conservatives in open primaries” as a reason to withdraw their support from McCarthy.

Moderates and institutionalists have rallied to act as McCarthy’s front line of defense against the most fringe in their conference, refusing to embrace other potential consensus candidates, such as incoming Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), and pledging to vote only for McCarthy, no matter how many ballots are needed, according to several lawmakers.

Over the weekend, McCarthy and his allies worked the phones to try to reassure Freedom Forum members that their demands, largely related to concerns about the functioning of the House, could be met through compromise. McCarthy ended up breaking his own promise not to change the “motion to discharge” rule to try to win over the five, deciding to include in House rules that any five members could request a vote to discharge, removing the speaker.

Still, that concession appears insufficient to placate those who remain skeptical that McCarthy is conservative enough to lead them, according to people familiar with the discussions. McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol on Monday that while his rule proposal had won over some Republicans, he would not say whether he was considering reducing the rule on an exemption proposal back to one vote, as several hardliners in the “no” camp are demanding.

Moderates have privately vowed to vote against any rule package that would repeal the exemption rule, which former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) changed from allowing any member to request a vote to recall the speaker to requiring a member of the leadership to make it so. But in a conversation Sunday, moderates appeared to cool that demand — if only it would ensure McCarthy would become speaker.

“His greatest skill is his ability to negotiate, and some have used that skill against him, saying there should be no negotiations. But that’s not how things go. That’s how it gets lost. If you refuse to negotiate, that’s how you lose,” Luntz said of McCarthy.

Without a speaker in place, major House functions, such as swearing in members and voting on a package dictating House rules, will be postponed indefinitely. Republicans’ eagerness to launch an investigation into the Biden administration will also be stymied because McCarthy has refused to announce committee appointments and some chairmanships until after he is elected, a last bargaining chip he is holding on to. Commission staff will not be paid from January 14, a warning that was issued last week as an incentive not to allow the election of a chairman to drag on.

Republicans have publicly sought to address the discontent by announcing the first 11 bills they expect to pass with overwhelming support in the first two weeks of January. That priority legislation includes revoking funds earmarked to hire 87,000 Internal Revenue Service employees, create a select committee to investigate China and address issues at the U.S.-Mexico border, among other measures. It does not include proposals to moderate inflation, a central GOP campaign promise.

But the high-stakes partisan tensions that have already surfaced ahead of the presidential vote have many Republicans skeptical about whether they could even agree to offer unifying major reform legislation on politically toxic issues like immigration and government reform .

“When the conference is this tight, I think we all work together. At the same time, no one will have more power than anyone else. With such a majority, more people can decide the future wherever it goes,” McCarthy said in November. “So we will lead as a team or lose as individuals. I think at the end of the day we will lead as a team.”

Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.


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