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Kevin McCarthy’s speaker math

Four GOP members have signaled their opposition and might put him on the cusp of defeat, given the party’s narrow majority. But there’s a lot still to play out.

The Post’s JM Rieger analyzes the recent House Republican leadership elections and what it could mean for Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Republicans have won the House majority. But if you’re Kevin McCarthy, you’re still paying close attention to how the final few races break.

That’s because 218 votes isn’t the magic number for McCarthy (R.-Calif.) like it is for his party. Multiple House Republicans are signaling they won’t support him for speaker. And right now they could plausibly number enough to prevent his ascension — just like in 2015.

Here’s where things stand.

So far, four House Republicans have said or suggested they’re not supporting McCarthy. And the likeliest 2022 election outcome is that House Republicans will end up with 221 or 222 votes in the chamber, giving McCarthy around a three- or four-vote cushion in the speaker vote. (You need a majority to be elected speaker.)

Where things go from here largely depends not only on these Republicans’ commitment to opposing McCarthy — which is a valid question, given the pervasive posturing in politics — but also how they would register that discontent.

It’s all very complicated, and it’s worth running through the ins and outs.

Let’s start with the four who have signaled they oppose him. While some have indicated their opposition is firm, others are less clear. To wit:

  • Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who took 31 votes in a symbolic challenge to McCarthy for GOP leader this week, wrote an op-ed Thursday saying flatly that “I cannot vote for” McCarthy and that McCarthy won’t get 218 votes.
  • Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) praised Biggs’s op-ed and said before the vote this week, “I’m not voting for Kevin McCarthy. I’m not voting for him tomorrow. I’m not voting for him on the floor” — referring to the speaker election in early January.
  • Rep. Matthew M. Rosendale (R-Mont.) has complained that McCarthy isn’t willing to change House rules to sufficiently empower the rank-and-file. “We need a leader who can stand up to a Democrat-controlled Senate and President Biden, and unfortunately, that isn’t Kevin McCarthy,” Rosendale said Wednesday.
  • Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) has said McCarthy has “not done anything to earn my vote” and that he isn’t close to 218 votes.

But a closer look at those last two shows the wiggle room here. Rosendale doesn’t explicitly say “I won’t vote for McCarthy” and seems to leave open the possibility that McCarthy could earn his vote by embracing certain changes.

And before Tuesday’s internal GOP vote, Good was asked whether his opposition extended to the vote for speaker in early January — when the matchup will be McCarthy against a Democrat (presumably, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries). On that point, Good was less firm. He echoed Rosendale’s concerns about House rules and merely said, “after tomorrow, we’ll see how close he gets to the 218 that’s required. We’ll see who else wants to be a candidate for the speakership.”

Neither statement is as ironclad as those given by Biggs and Gaetz.

But let’s say all of them do ultimately decline to support McCarthy. Even at that point — and even if the GOP’s majority is just 221 votes (a three-vote cushion for McCarthy) — McCarthy could get across the line.

That’s because it matters how they oppose him. While 218 votes is generally the threshold for winning the speakership, a candidate really only needs a majority of those who actually cast votes.

So if these members both oppose McCarthy and vote for someone else, he’s got problems. For example: If McCarthy gets 217 votes, Jeffries gets 214 votes, and other candidates like Biggs get four votes, McCarthy doesn’t have a majority. From there, the chamber would do further roll calls until someone gets a majority of votes. (Since 1913, there has only been one speaker election with multiple ballots: The 1923 race took nine to resolve.)

But if they don’t vote or vote “present” — and/or if some Democrats are absent — the threshold is lowered.

And there’s recent precedent for that. In fact, former speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and current outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) won with 216 votes.

In Boehner’s case, 26 members either weren’t present or didn’t pick a candidate in January 2015. That group was mostly absentees and mostly Democrats, but four Republicans didn’t vote and one voted “present.” That meant that, even if every Democrat had voted for their nominee, Boehner would’ve cleared the threshold by a single vote.

Pelosi got 216 votes in 2021 — when Democrats’ majority was similar to what House Republicans’ new one will be — with two Democrats voting for other candidates, three voting “present,” and one absent. She won the vote 216-109.

Effectively, each opponent would hurt McCarthy half as much if they didn’t support an actual alternative. They could still send a message by not voting for McCarthy — without necessarily preventing him from becoming speaker.

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that all four vote for someone else — or that enough of them are joined by other Republicans — and McCarthy is left shy of a majority. The question from there is whether they follow through and whether a capable GOP alternative emerges. Indeed, to the extent that their opposition is more than a momentary protest, they could make the party confront the challenge of finding an alternative who can get to 218 votes or a majority.

It seems very unlikely we’d see the likes of Biggs or a fellow Freedom Caucus member emerge. And it’s not clear who the alternative would be. When Boehner retired later in 2015, Republicans had to convince Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to become speaker because it didn’t appear any other Republican could put together the votes. And back then, Republicans had a lot more votes.

The most readily available alternative would be the House GOP’s No. 2 leader, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.). Scalise is closer to the conservative wing of the party, declined to challenge McCarthy for the top GOP spot and seems to be biding his time — perhaps, we’ll soon learn, wisely.

But if things get to that point, anything can happen. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) has even floated the possibility of a bipartisan pick who could get enough votes from more-moderate members of both parties. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) is cautioning her fellow far-right Republicans about such a possibility, also floating the seemingly very unlikely possibility that outgoing Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) could take the gavel. (One needn’t be a House member to be speaker.)

Both Bacon and Greene are supporting McCarthy, and thus have reason to caution the conservative wing about this worst-case scenario — a scenario that suggests their colleagues should simply fall in line and back the party’s nominee. And we should view all of this through the lens of political posturing.

But what’s evident is that McCarthy isn’t on particularly firm ground right now. And what happens next will be very much worth watching over the holidays — starting with us learning precisely how many votes he has to spare.