Her crime? Continually speaking the truth that Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden in the 2020 election and that the former president’s claims of a stolen election were unfounded.
On Jan. 6, almost two-thirds of House Republicans voted against certifying Biden’s victory, including McCarthy, effectively embracing Trump’s violent rhetoric and making Cheney’s comments uncomfortable, at the least.
About 90 minutes after Cheney’s ouster was complete, McCarthy sat down in the Oval Office with President Biden and three other congressional leaders. It was McCarthy’s first meeting with Biden after months of publicly complaining that he hadn’t been invited to an in-person huddle — even though he declined to vote to certify the new president’s election.
The meeting focused on Biden’s proposals worth approximately $4 trillion for infrastructure and expanded social welfare programs. Afterward, McCarthy called the meeting “productive” and faced predictable questions about how he could plead for bipartisanship with a president whose legitimate election victory is not to be discussed in GOP circles.
“I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that is all over with. We’re sitting here with the president today,” McCarthy told reporters outside the White House.
Never mind that Trump continues to peddle falsehoods about Biden’s win, and that McCarthy’s choice to succeed Cheney, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), fully embraced the unfounded work by Republicans in Arizona’s state legislature who are conducting a secretive recount of Biden’s victory over Trump there last fall.
Despite Stefanik’s pledging allegiance to Trump, and winning his endorsement, McCarthy can’t get a quick voice vote for her to join his leadership team as more ideological conservatives pore over her moderate voting record and want more time to consider pushing an alternative candidate.
The events demonstrated the uneasy hold McCarthy has on a caucus filled with Republicans who genuinely like their leader, but very few of whom are ready to go to political war on his behalf.
McCarthy, 56, has perfected the art of winning friends, raising money for lawmakers, learning about their personal interests and the most important details of their family life.
Yet he has also been thought of as too courteous, not tough enough, and his internal critics see that in how he handled the Cheney matter.
“I think that Kevin was boxed [in]. And I think he — I think he did this reluctantly,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), a staunch conservative who remains loyal to Cheney, told reporters after Wednesday’s vote.
Buck, who voted to certify Biden’s win, said McCarthy fears losing support from his right flank inside the GOP conference, as well as with Trump.
“Kevin is very aware of the feelings of the base. And I feel like the base of our party has listened to President Trump,” Buck said.
That recalls McCarthy’s first attempt to become House speaker, in October 2015, after John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) announced his retirement after five years of battling far-right conservatives.
Those same conservatives, mostly in the House Freedom Caucus, then denied McCarthy enough votes to become speaker, so he dropped out at the last minute, opening the door for Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to take the gavel until his retirement after the 2018 midterms, when Democrats won the majority.
For the past five and a half years, McCarthy has tread carefully through the House, always thinking about one number: 218. That’s the number of Republican votes he will need to win to become House speaker if the GOP ever wins back the majority, which is a real possibility in the 2022 midterms.
Soon after becoming minority leader two years ago, he brokered a peace deal with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, and after a slight dalliance with blaming Trump for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he has aggressively praised the former president in public and private, seeking to maintain his support.
While McCarthy and others tried to paint Cheney’s demotion as less about Trump and more about the future, Jordan spelled out clearly on Wednesday that he led the effort against her because she has been agitating against Trump.
“She has to go after the president. So I mean, it’s been a pattern. Time for a change,” he told reporters.
All this tending to his Trump-supporter flank, however, has exposed McCarthy to a new weakness: traditional conservative Republicans who are wary of voting to elevate him to speaker if Republicans win back the majority in next year’s midterms.
“Not if that election was today, no,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told reporters about whether he would support McCarthy for speaker.
Kinzinger, an Air Force pilot, served as one of McCarthy’s top recruits for the 2010 GOP class that won back the majority.
But Kinzinger joined Cheney and eight other House Republicans in voting to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 riot, and he has launched a political committee designed to support traditional conservative Republicans.
With the House majority so narrow — 219 Democrats, 212 Republicans and four vacancies — next year’s midterm elections are shaping up to be hand-to-hand combat in every competitive district, with no big national wave apparent for now.
That means, if Republicans win back a narrow majority, McCarthy will only be able to spare a few votes from his side, or else he will revisit the same fate as 2015.
As of now, Kinzinger is willing to lead a fight against McCarthy from his end of the caucus.
“I’ll never say what will happen in the future, but today I wouldn’t,” he said of voting for McCarthy.
The irony for McCarthy is, when Jordan began the effort to oust Cheney from leadership, in early February, he emerged from that internal fight stronger than he has ever been.
Back then, McCarthy delivered a forceful speech in her defense, tying together his own personal failures in 2015 and asking his colleagues to “let me lead” them.
He won a standing ovation and Cheney an overwhelming vote of confidence.
On Wednesday, there were no big McCarthy speeches, no ovations, just a defiant message from Cheney and then a voice vote.
A few hours later, on the White House driveway, McCarthy told reporters he felt confident about his own standing.
“I’m looking forward to being speaker in the next Congress,” he said.