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Kevin McCarthy scrambles to firm up his speaker bid as vote looms

McCarthy and colleagues have spent the weekend working the phones and negotiating with the holdouts who threaten to keep the gavel away from the California Republican

Then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) watches congressional midterm election results from his private executive suite at the Madison Hotel in Washington on Nov. 8. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and his allies have spent the holiday weekend working the phones and meeting with members, trying to salvage his career goal of becoming speaker on Tuesday as Republicans continue to argue over whether he deserves the top spot.

While an overwhelming majority of Republicans want to elect McCarthy (Calif.) as speaker, roughly 15 have put the outcome in serious doubt. McCarthy can afford to lose only four Republicans in Tuesday’s floor vote, and the razor-thin margin has emboldened staunch conservatives within the House Freedom Caucus, who have made specific demands in exchange for their votes.

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

“Two trains are going 100 miles per hour and everyone is wondering: Which one will survive?” one senior GOP aide said in trying to capture the mood within the conference.

Five Republicans have remained firm in their opposition to McCarthy, or are leaning toward no, since the midterms. They include Rep. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), who lost to McCarthy in a conference vote behind closed doors in November but will challenge him publicly on the floor Tuesday.

McCarthy met with key lawmakers across the ideological spectrum Monday evening to walk through what to expect Tuesday. No breakthrough occurred, as the holdouts emerged reiterating to reporters that they were still against his candidacy.

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

While McCarthy has made numerous concessions in an effort to win the holdouts’ 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 “insufficient,” further signaling that his ascent remains unassured.

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

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

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

Privately, McCarthy remains defiant, keeping some final tactics available as he intends to stay on the floor Tuesday as long as it may take to get elected, according to several lawmakers who, like others for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private and ongoing deliberations.

“To use his words, if they’re playing a game of chicken, he’s ripped the steering wheel out of the dashboard and he’s got his foot to the floor,” one Republican lawmaker said, paraphrasing a recent quip by McCarthy.

Building the coalition

McCarthy’s potential failure to clinch the necessary 218 votes to become speaker could derail the 16-year congressional career that he has paved to reach this moment. Although he is known for his ability to trade favors in hopes of gaining trust, his quest could be for naught if he is unable to overcome the demands by some who seek to weaken the power of the speakership.

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

“[McCarthy is] a very strong relationship guy,” said Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster who is close friends with McCarthy. “Most congressional leaders, the higher they climb, the less they listen. Kevin’s been exactly the opposite, and that’s been the secret of his success.”

McCarthy has earned Jordan’s trust, as well as that of others in the Freedom Caucus, after including their ideological viewpoints into broader conference conversations over the years and giving some lawmakers key committee assignments. He pledged to continue that commitment, telling colleagues, “I will use my selections on key panels to ensure they more closely reflect the ideological makeup of our conference, and will advocate for the same when it comes to the membership of standing committees.”

Most recently, McCarthy has gathered key lawmakers from all ideological factions in the conference to discuss how the House should function and held numerous conference-wide discussions ahead of voting to incorporate specific rules.

He also incorporated demands from holdouts in the rules package, including measures to cut spending, and endorsed the creation of a select committee modeled after the 1975 Senate “Church committee” that investigated the federal government post-Watergate, or as McCarthy wrote, the “weaponization of government against our citizens.”

But the promises, whether on paper or pledged behind closed doors over the past two months, have yet to move the handful of Republicans who oppose him.

Rep. Ralph Norman (S.C.), one of the five Republican members who have banded together to say they will vote against McCarthy, said Monday afternoon that he is still going to vote against him unless McCarthy adopts a seven-year balanced budget amendment.

“Miracles happen. Could he all of a sudden have a change of course?” Norman said. “I don’t know what that would be now. I know that my first vote is no and as it goes down the line, unless something dramatically happens.”

The Freedom Caucus of today now includes more fervent allies of former president Donald Trump, who consider McCarthy part of the “establishment” problem, while others have concerns that the House will continue to function in a manner that strengthens leadership and weakens membership. But even Trump has endorsed McCarthy as his choice for speaker.

The Freedom Caucus’s hold over Boehner and Ryan was a key reason that McCarthy and the House GOP’s largest super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, worked to elect in this year’s midterms more-moderate candidates considered more willing to govern. But that intervention, as first reported by The Washington Post, only added to the skepticism staunch hard-liners in the Freedom Caucus already had about McCarthy’s purely conservative credentials.

In reference to the rules package GOP leadership proposed, the nine conservatives noted in their letter Sunday that it “fails completely to address the issue of leadership working to defeat conservatives in open primaries” as a reason they are withholding their support from McCarthy.

In an op-ed published last week, Rep. Bob Good (Va.) said his no vote goes beyond reforming House procedure because McCarthy did not “use every procedural tool at our disposal to thwart the radical Democrat agenda,” like whip against bipartisan bills that came from the Senate.

“The upcoming speaker vote is about more than defeating McCarthy and electing a better leader in January. This is about striking a blow against the uni-party swamp cartel, and defeating a Republican system that is hostile to conservatives, resents its base voters, and resists empowering individual members in order to retain power in the hands of an elite few,” Good wrote.

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

“I can’t see any other possible outcome other than Kevin winning this in the end,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) said. “I just can’t, for the simple fact that no one else can get 218 other than him.”

Over the weekend, McCarthy and his allies worked the phones to try to assuage Freedom Caucus members that their demands, largely surrounding concerns over how the House functions, could be met through compromise. McCarthy ultimately broke his own pledge not to change the “motion to vacate” rule to try to win over the five, deciding to include in the House rules that any five members can demand a vote to vacate, or oust, the speaker.

Moderates have privately pledged to vote against any rule package that would reverse the vacate rule, which previous House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) changed from allowing any member to demand a vote to recall the speaker to requiring that a member of leadership do so.

Support for McCarthy across the conference remains strong, with rank-and-file members growing more infuriated toward their colleagues who continue to oppose his candidacy. But on a call Sunday, the “Only Kevin” group appeared to cool on that demand — but only if it would ensure that McCarthy becomes speaker, which remains unclear.

“In any negotiation, the term itself means there’s give and take. And this has so far only been take and this has so far been give, give, give,” said Rep. David Joyce (Ohio), who chairs the pragmatic GOP Governance Group. “That’s the constant game that they played for the 10 years I’ve been here, that whenever you get to the goal line, they move the goal posts.”

Expecting the unexpected

Yet the concessions appear insufficient to appease 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 rules proposal has won some Republicans over, he would not say whether he’s considering lowering the motion-to-vacate rule back to one vote, as several staunch people in the “no” camp are demanding.

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

While McCarthy’s loss on a first ballot would be historic — the first since 1923 — it is not unprecedented. Out of respect for McCarthy, Republicans are expected to approve holding a second round of votes. But what happens after that is anyone’s guess.

McCarthy is adamant about staying on the floor until his critics cave, according to several lawmakers and aides familiar with his thinking.

If McCarthy is unable to secure the necessary votes, Republicans speculate that at some point he will either recognize he can’t clinch the support and pull out or members will privately bring up that reality to him. Those in the “Only Kevin” group are not entertaining the idea of another speaker, and would do so only if McCarthy decides to drop out of the race.

“At the end of the day, if they’re going to be intellectually honest, they’ll stop playing this game and just say, ‘We’re not voting for Kevin, just don’t like him and we’ll never vote for him.’ People will then be able to make intelligent decisions from there, including Kevin,” Joyce said.

Without a speaker in place, basic House functions such as swearing in members and voting on a package dictating House rules would be delayed indefinitely. It’s a warning that McCarthy allies have routinely given their Freedom Caucus counterparts, and have emphasized that without McCarthy, a consensus candidate would have to emerge between the GOP and Democrats, ruining Republican chances of influencing anything in the next Congress.

“With Kevin, he’s much more open to you guys. He’s bending over backwards to get your rules changes in,” one lawmaker said about how he has approached negotiations with colleagues. “With a consensus candidate, you’re going to have to compromise on subpoenas, on impeachment of any officials, all of that. And then you’re going to get absolutely nothing of what you want.”

Liz Goodwin and Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.

Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker of the House

The vote: The House elected Kevin McCarthy after days of defeats and concessions to win over hard-line Republicans. See how each of the House members voted in all 15 ballots.

A dramatic finish: After multiple ballots over four days (the longest House speaker vote in history took two months and 133 votes), the House turned into a near-brawl late Friday after a 14th round of voting failed. See the remarkable near-confrontation on the House floor.

Kevin McCarthy’s concessions: McCarthy made several concessions in an attempt to win over 20 Republicans who voted against his candidacy. In the end, these were the remaining six holdouts McCarthy needed to persuade. Here are the concessions that could become flash points.