“May you be cursed with a slim majority.”
That’s probably what’s going through the mind of Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the count comes down to a handful of still-uncalled House races. It is highly likely that a GOP majority in that chamber will see a spread similar to what Pelosi had for her own caucus, where a mere four or five votes would comprise the difference between success or failure.
But California Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy is no Pelosi, and he is already facing a revolt within his own ranks. While it is still likely he will become Speaker, even of a fractured party reeling from a hugely disappointing showing in the midterm elections, he may have to make some very important concessions to win that post.
All this has considerable implications for how the GOP will govern within the House for the next two years.
Before we get to what’s happening among Republicans, let’s review how the process actually works in selecting a Speaker. In so doing, we’ll better understand why McCarthy faces such a challenge.
How Do They Choose a Speaker?
The major parties go through an internal nomination process to put forward candidates who will lead their parties within each chamber. Over in the Senate, the majority party—in this case the Democrats—nominates a Majority Leader, while in the House the majority party—in this case likely the Republicans—nominates a Speaker.
To be nominated for Speaker, a candidate like McCarthy would need to receive more than 50 percent of the votes from his own party, which he is certain to receive. The Republicans intend to hold a secret ballot election later on Tuesday where, barring any calamity, McCarthy will handily win the nomination.
But that doesn’t make him Speaker.
He still has to receive a majority of the entire chamber’s votes—meaning 218 ayes—before that is official. That vote will takes place on the first day of the new Congress in January, 2023.
This is the date around which the test of McCarthy’s skills as a negotiator and dealmaker will occur. When you have a big majority, you can afford to lose some votes.
But when you have a slim majority, as he will, you can afford to lose almost none. If no one receives 218 votes, then the parties go back and try again.
A lot of horse trading and new promises happen, and McCarthy would hope that he could wrangle support to get over the finish line.
The Freedom Caucus and its Allies Are Flexing Their Strength
McCarthy has a present problem with members of the far-right of his party, who are bitter over the performance of Republicans in the midterms. They are also unhappy with McCarthy for not committing to launch impeachments against key Democrats such as the Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Attorney General Merrick Garland and even President Biden.
McCarthy’s statements indicating low interest in using impeachment “for political purposes” have triggered outrage among the Freedom Caucus, and one of them has now stepped up to challenge him. Arizona Republican Representative Andy Biggs, who is among the most extreme members of the party, announced he would stand for Speaker, and he apparently has the support of some members who never want to see McCarthy hold the reins.
Those include Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, who declared:
“Establishment Republicans are in denial, thinking McCarthy can be speaker."
"There’s definitely at least five people, actually more than that, who would rather be waterboarded by Liz Cheney than vote for Kevin McCarthy for Speaker of the House."
"I’m one of them.”
CNN reports “dozens” of hardliners are threatening to withhold their support for McCarthy unless he caves to their demands, which include giving their wing more say over policy and direction and a rule change that would make it easier to force a vote to oust a speaker.
There was enough uncertainty and scrambling within the Republican Party that 72 prominent conservatives, including Ginni Thomas, issued a letter on Monday to Republican members of Congress asking that the leadership votes set for Tuesday be postponed, given there were still races to be decided and a Georgia run-off election for a Senate seat.
It is unclear whether the letter will result in any delay.
But Inside the Freedom Caucus, a Fracture
McCarthy has been preparing for this fight.
For weeks he has been wooing Trump sycophant and conspiracy peddler Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, meeting with her frequently, promising her committee assignments and bringing her to events at the border.
He has been hoping that she would ultimately throw her support behind him, and that groundwork paid off yesterday when she broke from her cohorts in the Freedom Caucus and put herself in McCarthy’s camp. Greene warned it was “risky” and a “bad strategy” to challenge McCarthy given the razor-thin margin he will have.
Said Greene, in a remarkable turnaround from her prior disdain and condemnation of McCarthy:
“Politics is a blood sport."
"We have to do anything we can to stop our enemy.
"And the enemy is the Democratic Party.”
That loyalty to McCarthy earned her a quick rebuke from her once-close ally Gaetz, who doubted that McCarthy would make good on whatever promises he may have made to Greene behind the scenes.
Gaetz told the far-right base on the internet program of MyPillow CEO and conspiracy whackadoodle Mike Lindell:
“At the first opportunity, he will zap her faster than you can say Jewish space laser.”
Meanwhile, McCarthy has been meeting with the head of the Freedom Party, Pennsylvania Republican Representative Scott Perry, who may himself be under DoJ investigation for his role in the coup attempt and the January 6 insurrection. Perry noted the “conversation went well” with McCarthy but gave no further details.
Other prominent supporters of McCarthy, at least for now, include Ohio Republican Representative Jim Jordan who likely will head the House Judiciary Committee and is also known for covering up very big problems happening right in front of him.
One House Moderate Floats the Previously Unimaginable
The Freedom Caucus may not be McCarthy’s only concern. On Monday, Nebraska GOP Representative Don Bacon told reporters he would be willing to work with Democrats to elect a moderate Speaker should 218 Republicans be unable to agree upon a candidate.
That is a remarkable statement, which Bacon immediately had to clarify did not mean he wouldn’t support McCarthy in the first round. Rather, he said he would work with Democrats to find a new candidate only if McCarthy doesn’t receive enough votes in order to keep Congress from melting down.
“If we have total gridlock, I’m going to work with like-minded people across the aisle to find someone agreeable for speaker."
"We have to govern."
"We can't afford to let our country be stuck in neutral.”
So far, this is the only sign among moderates there are any misgivings or a possibility of a shake-up.
But McCarthy has to be wary not to seem to cave too much to the far-right, or members of the moderate wing, though small in number, could stage their own revolt. Bacon is co-chair of the “Mainstreet GOP” caucus whose traditionally conservative mission is to “develop common sense, pragmatic legislation and promote kitchen-table policies.”
That might be hard to accomplish under radical leadership like Jim Jordan.
How Might This Play Out in January?
There are many ways this could go, so I’ll just game out one of them for yucks today. Let’s say the split is 221/214, favoring the GOP.
In January, McCarthy only receives 209 votes because a dozen of the far right representatives decline to support him. That then leaves Nancy Pelosi with 214 votes.
No one has 218 and therefore no one is elected speaker, and they have to ballot again. The far-right holds firm, saying they want someone else like Jim Jordan, who begins to indicate he would do it reluctantly to unify the party.
Perhaps this was his game plan all along.
A group of four moderate GOP members are horrified at the idea of Jordan as speaker. They want the party to return to “kitchen table” issues instead of launching vengeful, politically-driven hearings and impeachments for two years, which wound up working out very badly for them the last time they tried that in 1998 with Bill Clinton.
And they don’t want an extremist Trump ally and possible coup plotter in charge of the House. So they strike a deal with Pelosi where she throws her weight behind Bacon as Speaker.
He now has 218 votes, securing the nomination.
Yes. But it is an example of the kind of waters McCarthy needs to navigate carefully over the next seven weeks to hang on to power. He will have to placate his critics on the far-right without ceding so much power to them that it causes a revolt from the center.
It is an unenviable task, one I’m not sure McCarthy has the political savvy to pull off, especially given he is now severely weakened by the poor showing of his party in the midterms.