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Opinion Clyburn toys with McCarthy’s speaker ambitions

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) leaves a meeting at the White House on Nov. 29. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is desperate with a capital D to be speaker of the House in the next Congress. He’s negotiating all sorts of concessions to get to the magic number 218. That’s how many votes he needs to win the gavel after the new members of Congress are sworn in on Jan. 3.

Everywhere you turn, there is a story detailing how difficult McCarthy’s quest for 218 is and how humiliating it could become. But outgoing House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) issued a stunning, taunting proposal to help the already embattled Republican leader when I talked to him on Sunday.

“If there are seven or eight people who are not going to vote for him then I’d advise him to go and look on the other side of the aisle and see whether or not there are some deals over there to be made as well,” Clyburn said. By deals, the soon-to-be assistant Democratic leader meant a bipartisan agenda that could garner 218 Republican and (some) Democratic votes for McCarthy.

“That’s how you do it. You bring votes to the table. We bring votes to the table. Let’s see what we can do about fashioning a bipartisan approach to making this country’s greatness accessible and affordable for all of its citizens,” Clyburn said. “What’s wrong with that?”

Ain’t nothing wrong with that, generally speaking. But we’re talking about McCarthy and the Trump-bound Republicans he’s struggling to win over. He can’t lose more than four votes in the Jan. 3 election. Fox News reports that “at least five” of his colleagues have already declared themselves Never-Kevins.

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McCarthy promises as many floor votes as it takes to win the gavel. And if the MAGA crowd forces McCarthy to do that, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said, “We’ll work with Democrats to put in an agreeable Republican.” McCarthy himself warned last month, “If we play games on the floor, the Democrats could end up picking who the speaker is.”

Now, let me introduce some heavy doses of reality into this utopian solution to McCarthy’s dilemma.

Obviously, Clyburn is just toying with McCarthy. He knows Democrats won’t go for this. But he also knows that if he gets desperate enough, McCarthy could actually be tempted to take Clyburn up on his suggestion. And if he did, McCarthy would throw the House and his speakership into unbridled chaos.

Without question, Republican reaction to a McCarthy SOS to the Democrats would be bonkers. And if McCarthy did reach that low point and won the speaker’s gavel with the help of some Democratic votes because of it, he would be the weakest leader in Lord knows how long. McCarthy would be unfeared on the right and despised on the left.

Then there’s Donald Trump, the twice impeached former president whose “big-lie” harangue now includes an explicit call for the “termination” of the Constitution. He thrives on vengeance and public humiliation. McCarthy is a prime candidate for it given his actions during and after the insurrection. Which is why I’m not surprised Trump hasn’t publicly told the Never-Kevins to fall in line behind McCarthy.

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As for the Democrats, let’s be clear: They have no real incentive to throw McCarthy a lifeline. If he can’t get the requisite number of Republicans to rally around him, that’s on him and on them. Also, Democrats have no desire to help members of a party who remain in thrall to a man who instigated a violent insurrection of the Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election that put one of their own in the White House.

Most important, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who holds McCarthy in low regard, is in the driver’s seat.

Around the same time I was talking to Clyburn, Jeffries was talking to George Stephanopoulos. The ABC News anchor asked him what Democrats might do if a moderate Republican alternative to McCarthy emerged and needed Democratic votes to get to 218. Jeffries appeared to leave open the possibility that Democrats could ride to the Republican rescue if the stars and political priorities aligned.

“So, it’s a possibility?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s a possibility,” Jeffries responded.

It’s certainly not likely. But watch what happens as McCarthy’s mission to be speaker of the House gets even more desperate.