IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

As Pelosi passes the torch, McCarthy struggles with GOP support

The House Democrats' process for choosing new leaders is going surprisingly smoothly. For House Republicans, however, it's become a frustrating mess.


In theory, a typical political observer might expect to see a divided, acrimonious House Democratic conference at each other’s throats, while the House Republican conference links arms in celebration. After all, the latter just achieved its goal — the GOP flipped the chamber in the midterm elections — while the former just lost its grip on power.

And yet, everything appears to be going quite smoothly on one side of the aisle — and it’s not the side that fared well in the midterms.

On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she would not seek another term in the Democratic leadership. On Friday morning, a new team featuring Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, and Rep. Pete Aguilar of California took shape. On Friday afternoon, as The Washington Post reported, Pelosi formally threw her support behind her party’s slate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Friday gave her blessing to a trio of House Democrats seeking leadership positions, saying she is “confident that these new leaders will capably lead our Caucus and the Congress.” Her statement came after campaign announcements by Democratic Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) for minority leader, Katherine M. Clark (Mass.) for minority whip and Pete Aguilar (Calif.) for Democratic caucus chairman. No other candidates have announced challenges to those three contenders.

A Politico report added, “House Democrats are increasingly likely to elect their troika of top leaders for the next Congress without any major confrontation, ensuring a show of unity as they enter the minority.”

It’d be a slight overstatement to suggest everything went entirely smoothly: Rep. Joe Neguse was also eyeing a leadership post, and with Rep. James Clyburn deciding to stay on as assistant leader, the Coloradan may be the odd man out. That said, by any fair measure, the process among House Democrats has gone remarkably smoothly. [Update: See below.]

It’s a safe bet that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is envious of Democratic unity.

To be sure, when GOP members met last week, McCarthy was easily nominated as the conference’s choice for House speaker in the next Congress. But the Californian faced a right-wing rival and the final tally was 188 to 31.

The problem for the incumbent House minority leader is arithmetic: McCarthy will need 218 votes to secure the speaker’s gavel. He won’t get any Democratic votes. His conference in the next Congress will probably end up with 221 or 222 members. At that point, the math is pretty straightforward: With a 221-member conference, the Republican leader can lose no more than three of his own members, while with a 222-member conference, the Republican leader can lose no more than four of his own members.

The fact that 31 GOP members didn’t vote for McCarthy last week wasn’t a great start, though most of them will end up backing him when it counts. But how many won’t?

Rep. Andy Biggs, the chair of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, not only declared last week that he “cannot” support McCarthy, the Arizonan also added, “I do not believe he will ever get to 218 votes, and I refuse to assist him in his effort to get those votes.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida also appears to be a hard “no” vote against McCarthy, and he welcomed Rep. Matthew Rosendale of Montana into his faction late last week. Around the same time, Rep. Bob Good of Virginia told reporters that McCarthy has “not done anything to earn my vote,” adding that he doesn’t believe McCarthy is close to securing the 218 votes he needs.

Or put another way, there’s quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding the Republican leadership team.

I won’t pretend to know how this will unfold in the coming weeks. Maybe McCarthy’s critics will strike behind-the-scenes deals that change their minds; maybe credible GOP rivals will step up; maybe no one will have the necessary 218 votes when it comes time to elect a new speaker in January. (There’s some precedent for a contentious process. Remember what happened in 1856?)

The one thing that seems obvious, though, is that McCarthy would love nothing more than to have the kind of unity Democrats are currently enjoying.

Update: Neguse may not be left out of the House leadership after all. Soon after I published this report, the Colorado Democrat let his colleagues know about a new leadership post he's now seeking: chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.