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Semafor LogoKadia Goba and Benjy Sarlin
politics

In the Speaker's race, it's Kevin McCarthy versus the phantom conservative

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Title iconThe News
Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise.
REUTERS/Michael A. McCoy

The conservative rebellion against Speaker-not-quite-elect Kevin McCarthy continues, with a small but significant group of members declaring themselves a hard “no” on his candidacy. If even a handful of holdouts don’t crack, McCarthy will face an impossible math problem that will force Republicans to produce someone else.

To which McCarthy’s allies have a retort: Who?

“There’s no Plan B on this, it’s McCarthy,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif. said.

“There are no options,” Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga. said. “It’s definitely going to be McCarthy.”

“It’s just McCarthy,” Kat Cammack, R-Fla. told Semafor.

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“It’s him. There is nobody else,” Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn. said.

Asked “If not McCarthy, then who?” Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. responded simply: “McCarthy.”

Failure to come together, McCarthy’s allies argue, risks opening the door to nightmare scenarios like a compromise candidate negotiated between moderate Republicans and Democrats — a situation that came to pass this week in Alaska’s legislature. It’s a hypothetical McCarthy himself stoked this week, warning on Newsmax that “if we play games on the floor, the Democrats can end up picking who the speaker is.”

Title iconKADIA AND BENJY'S VIEW

They have a point.

On the surface, McCarthy’s bid for Speaker is looking worse by the day. Four conservatives have come out as a hard “no” and some claim more are waiting in the wings.

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McCarthy’s critics largely agree with him on their priorities, in the abstract. They say they want investigations of the Biden administration, a debt ceiling standoff to advance spending cuts, a push for more domestic energy production, and increased focus on border security.

The main divide at this point is suspicions about his willingness to follow through. They want rules that will make it easier to remove McCarthy as speaker if he fails to keep up, and to prevent him from going around the caucus to cut deals with Democrats.

“There isn't anything that I saw under the previous, last two years…that demonstrated to me that the leader is the right person to fight the way we need to fight against the Biden-Schumer agenda in the new Congress,” Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., one of the holdouts, told Semafor.

But House Freedom Caucus members are also reluctant to name an ideal candidate after McCarthy easily dispatched a try for leader by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., who is still running for speaker, by a 188-31 margin. And it’s not clear there’s a leader-in-waiting who could solve their concerns without pushing away moderates wary of handing their caucus too much power.

“I'm not going to get into that game,” McCarthy foe Texas Rep. Chip Roy said when asked who could step in for the leader. “As I've said before, this is the question right now: ‘Who has 218? Who will lead us forward?’ And we're going to have a debate about this and make sure that we're unified as a conference.”

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Among the most discussed options is House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, but he’s already backed McCarthy and is part of the same longtime leadership team that House Freedom Caucus members argue has failed to confront Democrats forcefully enough.

A more hardline option like Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio could alienate McCarthy allies and relative moderates who, thanks to a likely tight 222-213 vote majority, believe they have significant clout as well in picking a leader. Jordan told Semafor, “It’s going to be McCarthy.”

“In my view, if these five were to say they're never going to vote for McCarthy under any circumstances, I'm saying that there's a lot more of us who will only vote for McCarthy, and that's where I am,” Guy Reschenthaler, R-Penn. told Semafor.

Some McCarthy allies have argued a prolonged deadlock, with multiple rounds of failed votes, could require eventually turning to Democrats to agree on a candidate acceptable to both of them. Reschenthaler threw out soon-to-be-former Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. as a nightmare scenario for conservatives (the speaker does not technically have to be a member, though the Cheney scenario is implausible for many other reasons).

But the basic point remains: Even if conservatives managed to force repeated votes, who can step in to get them over the hump?

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas argues McCarthy has it backwards. Rather than produce a moderate squish who can get along with Democrats, a standoff on the Speaker vote that went multiple rounds would simply force Republicans to find a more unifying “compromise candidate” or McCarthy to make new concessions to the right.

“It’s not going to be a Democratic-elected speaker,” Gohmert, who won’t be a member of Congress next year, said.

Even if there isn’t a clear contender now, one might come off the sidelines if it became clear the caucus had no confidence in McCarthy. Ironically, a version of this happened in 2015 when a reluctant Paul Ryan took over after a McCarthy bid collapsed.

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” one Republican senior aide told Semafor, when asked about the possibility of a Speaker Scalise.

Title iconNotable
  • How did McCarthy make it this far? The Associated Press reviews some of the steps that he’s taken to shore up his weak spots in the caucus, from pledging to restore committee slots to far right members to threatening impeachment against members of President Biden’s cabinet.
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