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McCarthy can’t shake his problem with GOP’s ‘Knucklehead Caucus’

Republicans already looked like a party unprepared to govern. The more Kevin McCarthy struggles in his bid for speaker, the worse that picture appears.


House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy probably thought his problem would be resolved by now. Just a couple of days before the 2022 midterm elections, the California Republican boasted that he would “have the votes” to become speaker of the House. A couple of days after the midterms, the GOP leader realized he did not, in fact, have the votes.

And so, McCarthy got to work behind the scenes. He’s held private meetings. He’s dangled carrots. He’s made partisan promises. He’s endorsed investigations into conspiracy theories. He’s even had Donald Trump make calls to members on his behalf.

At least for now, it’s not working. The Washington Post reported this morning:

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) acknowledged Friday that none of the five Republicans who have announced opposition to his speakership — and could tank his ambitions next month — have come around. Appearing on Hugh Hewitt’s syndicated radio show, McCarthy was asked by a sympathetic host about the latest on what Hewitt dubbed the “Knucklehead Caucus.”

When the host asked whether his intraparty opponents are “retreating,” McCarthy responded that the talks are ongoing, “but they have not moved.”

For the incumbent minority leader, that lack of movement is a real problem. When the new Congress begins in a few weeks, McCarthy will need the support of a majority of members to earn the speaker’s gavel. If every member votes, that means he can lose no more than four of his own members.

Right now, five House Republicans — Arizona’s Andy Biggs, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, Virginia’s Bob Good, South Carolina’s Ralph Norman and Montana’s Matthew Rosendale — have said they’ll oppose McCarthy’s bid. Complicating matters, the group declared this week that they’d vote as a bloc, preventing party leaders from trying to pick them off, one by one.

Making matters just a bit worse, these five “Never Kevin” members are the ones who’ve expressed public opposition to McCarthy. An unknown number of other Republicans might very well be privately opposed to the leader’s candidacy for House speaker.

McCarthy predicted this morning that “in the end,” his GOP detractors will relent. Maybe so. But there’s little to suggest that’s a safe assumption, and some of his allies are “starting to doubt that McCarthy can survive the gauntlet needed to win the gavel.”

As the process moves forward, it’s worth keeping in mind that the fight for the speaker’s office is important for a great many reasons, including practical considerations. Politico had a good report on this:

Weird thing about the speaker vote on Jan. 3 — it will essentially function in a House without rules. The speakership election happens before the House sets the rules for the 118th Congress, meaning the vote operates outside of the chamber’s standard operating procedures. When a speaker candidate is elected on the first ballot without too much drama, that’s not a big deal. But Jan. 3, 2023 could have a lot of drama, and many members doubt it will all be settled on the first ballot.

In other words, the House approves a set of rules as to how the chamber will function at the start of a new Congress, but that vote happens after the House speaker is chosen. But if members struggle to choose a speaker, the rules governing the House can’t be approved, and the institution is simply stuck until the matter is resolved.

Adding to the drama, McCarthy yesterday delayed conferencewide races for committee leadership slots until after Jan. 3. This might seem like an overly granular detail, but ordinarily, powerful committees, including the House Ways and Means Committee, would already have an incoming chairman preparing for the next Congress. But the current GOP leader is holding off because members who are disappointed with the committee selections might take out their frustrations on McCarthy, who can’t afford to lose any support.

Congressional Republicans already looked like a party wholly unprepared to govern. Now, they look quite a bit worse.