New Congress to convene, but will McCarthy be House speaker?

Kevin McCarthy

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

California House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, November 15, 2022.

WASHINGTON — The new Congress begins with House Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy reaching for his political survival with the potential to become the first speaker candidate in 100 years to fail to gain the initial support of his own peers to win for the Hammer in a high-level vote.

Lawmakers convene on Tuesday for a new era of divided government as Democrats cede control of the House of Representatives following midterm election defeats. While the Senate remains in Democratic hands, House Republicans are eager to embrace President Joe Biden’s agenda after two years of the Democratic Party’s monopoly on power in Washington.

But first, House Republicans must elect a speaker.

McCarthy is slated to replace Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but he’s going into the vote with no guarantee of success. The California Republican faces deep-rooted critics within his own ranks. Despite attempts to flatter, preach and win her over – even with the support of former President Donald Trump – McCarthy has failed.

The noon showdown could very well turn into an extended ground fight in the House of Representatives, a spectacle that will split the Republican Party, weaken its leadership and engulf the first days of the new Congress.

“That’s a lot more important than, say, a person,” said Doug Heye, a former senior adviser to the Republican leadership. “It’s about whether the Republicans can govern.”

House Republicans will huddle behind closed doors ahead of ground action early this morning as newly elected lawmakers arrive for a traditionally celebratory day. With families in tow, members of the new Congress are preparing to be sworn into the House and Senate for the start of the two-year term.

A new generation of Republicans close to Trump is leading the opposition to McCarthy, inspired by the former president’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” They don’t think McCarthy is conservative enough or tough enough to fight the Democrats. It commemorates the last time Republicans regained control of the House after the 2010 midterms, when the Tea Party class ushered in a new era of hardball politics and eventually sent Speaker John Boehner into early retirement.

Normally, it takes a majority of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, 218 votes, to become Speaker. With just a slim majority of 222 seats, McCarthy can only afford a handful of critics. A speaker like Pelosi and Boehner can win by fewer than 218 votes if some lawmakers are absent or simply vote present.

But McCarthy, despite weeks of behind-closed-doors meetings and promised Home Rule changes, has failed to attract a core — and potentially growing — group of right-flank Republicans led by the conservative Freedom Caucus. Nearly a dozen Republicans have publicly expressed concerns about McCarthy.

“Kevin McCarthy doesn’t have to have 218 votes to be Speaker,” Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chair of the Freedom Caucus and a leader in Trump’s effort to contest the 2020 election, said in an interview with The Associated Press You. “Unless something changes dramatically, we’ll be there.”

Late Monday night, McCarthy met with Perry in the Capitol Speaker’s office, a Republican adviser confirmed on condition of anonymity, to discuss the private session.

But the prospect of holdouts wreaking havoc on Day One has sparked a counteroffensive from Republicans, frustrated that critics are threatening the work of the new Congress.

A sizeable but less vocal group of McCarthy supporters launched their own “Only Kevin” campaign to eliminate the opposition and pledge their support only to him.

A viable challenger for McCarthy had yet to emerge. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a former leader of the Freedom Caucus, ran against McCarthy as a conservative option but was not expected to receive a majority. McCarthy defeated him in the November nominating contest, 188-31.

Second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana would be an obvious next pick, a conservative well-liked by his peers and considered a hero by some after surviving a brutal mass shooting during a baseball game in Congress in 2017 .

Once rivals, McCarthy and Scalise have become a team. Scalise’s office on Monday dismissed as “wrong” a suggestion by another Republican that Scalise was making calls about the speaker’s race.

McCarthy promised to fight to the end and complete several rounds of careful voting — a sight not seen by Congress since the controversial 1923 race of the speaker.

“It would be nice if we were ready to go on Jan. 3,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who is set to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “But you know, if it doesn’t happen on the first ballot, it just pushes things back.”

Without a speaker, the House of Representatives cannot fully form — it can name its committee chairs, participate in ground trials, and initiate the Biden administration investigations that are expected to form the core of the Republican agenda.

The uproar in the House of Representatives on the first day of the new session could be in stark contrast to the other side of the Capitol, where Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell will officially become the longest-serving party leader of the chamber in history.

Despite being in the minority in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 51-49 majority, McConnell could prove a viable partner as Biden seeks bipartisan victories in the new era of divided government. The two men were expected to appear together later in the week at the GOP leader’s home state of Kentucky to celebrate federal infrastructure investments in a vital bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio.

McCarthy’s candidacy for speaker should have been almost certain. Kind and approachable, he led his party into a majority after raising millions of campaign dollars and touring the country recruiting many of the newer lawmakers to office.

McCarthy has been here before, however, abruptly dropping out of the running for the speaker in 2015 when it was clear he had no Conservative support to replace Boehner.

A key demand from the holdouts this time is that McCarthy reintroduce a rule allowing each individual lawmaker to file a “motion to vacate the presidency” — in short, to hold a vote to impeach the speaker.

Pelosi removed the rule after conservatives used it to threaten Boehner’s ouster, but McCarthy agreed to add it back — but with a higher threshold requiring at least five lawmakers to sign off on the motion.

“I will work with everyone in our party to build a conservative consensus,” McCarthy wrote in a weekend letter to his colleagues.

As McCarthy called a New Year’s Day conference call with Republican lawmakers to unveil the new House Rules package, Perry sent a new letter of concern, signed by eight other Republicans, that the changes didn’t go far enough.

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