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GOP’s Kevin McCarthy prepares for fateful vote on bid for speaker

On the first day of the new Congress, the incoming House Republican majority is starting with "an ugly street fight" over who should be speaker.


Reporters caught up with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy Monday afternoon on Capitol Hill, and the California Republican did his best to appear optimistic about the upcoming vote on his bid for speaker. Asked if he’d secured the support he’ll need from his own members, the GOP leader replied, “I think we will have a good day tomorrow.”

That’s certainly possible, though it’s not the most likely outcome. Politico reported Monday night:

McCarthy met briefly with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of his most ardent opponents, as well as Reps. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), neither of whom have committed to voting for the California Republican. But while Gaetz quipped heading into the meeting that they could be on “the verge of a New Year’s miracle,” he said afterward that the talk was “brief and productive” — and, critically, that he and five others are still “no” votes.

A Washington Post report added soon after, “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.”

Much of the public has probably grown accustomed to periodic drama on Capitol Hill, but this is a qualitatively different kind of story: Since the Civil War, the House of Representatives has elected a new speaker on the first ballot in every instance except one, and that exception was 100 years ago.

Under normal circumstances, the speaker for the next Congress is chosen several weeks in advance, and the first day of the new session is largely ceremonial — with the chamber’s leader swearing in his or her colleagues, while preparing to advance a legislative agenda.

These are not normal circumstances. As of this minute, McCarthy, facing a stubborn group of opponents from his own party, still doesn’t have the votes necessary to prevail.

In fact, by most measures, he’s not especially close. To earn the speaker’s gavel, the House Republican can lose no more than four of his own members. As things stand, McCarthy is facing at least five firm “no” votes, and there are roughly 10 additional skeptics who’ve put his leadership bid in doubt.

It would be an overstatement to say McCarthy’s fate is sealed. It’s not. He’s already made all kinds of concessions in the hopes of winning over far-right detractors — specifically with a rules package that would weaken his position in the new Congress — and in the coming hours, the incumbent GOP leader will no doubt continue to negotiate in desperation. He might find the formula to convince his Republican critics to change their minds.

But as Tuesday gets underway, McCarthy simply isn’t where he wants to be. In fact, things appear to be getting worse, not better: Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, the chair of the right-wing Freedom Caucus, issued a written statement this morning that read in part, "Kevin McCarthy had an opportunity to be Speaker of the House. He rejected it."

The result is a scenario wholly unfamiliar to American political observers: an election for speaker that will take more than one ballot.

A separate Washington Post report described it as “an amazing moment.”

Most parties begin their House majorities basking in the ceremonial niceties afforded by their November victories while building momentum for their policy and political agendas. House Republicans are starting their House takeover with an ugly street fight that is deepening the divide among the conference and raises questions about how they’ll be able to govern over the next two years.

And that’s ultimately why I find this so fascinating. Whether McCarthy succeeds in advancing his ambitions is of interest, but far more important is the state of the Republican Party, the power of its most radical members, its difficulties in functioning as a constructive entity, and its inability to govern.

What’s more, since the election for speaker is the first necessary step, the House itself will not be able to function — at all — until this matter is resolved. New members can’t even be sworn in until the chamber chooses a leader.

The House clerk will begin the proceedings at noon eastern. If, on the first try, no one gets a majority for the first time in 100 years, members will prepare to try again on a second ballot.

McCarthy has said he’ll fight as long as it takes, but there’s already ample chatter about other Republicans who might emerge if he falters. Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, one of McCarthy’s fiercest intra-party foes, said on Fox News Monday night, “I think you’ll see on the second ballot an increasing number of members vote for a true candidate who can represent the conservative center of the conference, can motivate the base.”

For more on this, check out our Q&A on McCarthy’s troubles and the broader process from Monday.