Douglas Andrews / November 16, 2022

McCarthy Doesn’t Yet Have the Votes

The House minority leader easily won a procedural vote for speaker yesterday, but getting to 218 will be a far heavier lift.

While California continues to drag its feet on last week’s midterm election results and thereby delay the inevitable flip of the lower chamber, House Republicans got down to business yesterday.

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose Republican caucus gained seats two years ago and gained seats again this cycle, overcame his first hurdle in becoming the next speaker of the House when he drew support from more than half of his conference during a closed-ballot vote yesterday. That initial vote of confidence, though, shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking the speakership is in the bag for McCarthy. It isn’t. He’ll need at least 218 votes in order to grab the speaker’s gavel when the GOP holds its floor vote in January, and he’s nowhere near that number right now.

“I’m proud to announce the era of one-party Democrat rule in Washington is over. Washington now has a check and balance,” said McCarthy. “The American people have a say in their government. And this new Republican leadership team is ready to get to work, to put America back on the right track.”

One challenger to McCarthy will be Arizona’s Andy Biggs, the former House Freedom Caucus chairman who announced his intent to vie for the speakership on Monday evening. Biggs explained his rationale in a series of tweets:

The American people want us to turn a page. They do not want excuses or performance art, they want action and results. The promised red wave turned into a loss of the United States Senate, a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives, and upset losses of premiere political candidates.

My bid to run for speaker is about changing the paradigm and the status quo. Minority Leader McCarthy does not have the votes needed to become the next speaker of the House and his speakership should not be a foregone conclusion.

Reforms must be made in the House in order to facilitate representation of our constituents. Items such as allowing members to move to amend bills, only allowing bills that cover a single subject, and requiring bills to go through committees before bringing them to the floor. Members must also be granted more time to read the legislation and debate the merits of it.

“It’s not a vote against Kevin,” said Texas Congressman Chip Roy, who nominated Biggs, “but a vote to force us all to the table to figure out how — not if — how we will come together as a party, to reshape the conference rules, rethink the makeup of steering and the very structure and operation of the rules committee, and, most of all, lay out a specific agreed-to agenda and battle plan around which we can unify.”

McCarthy beat Biggs easily in the above-mentioned procedural vote, 188-31. But 181 is still a long way from the necessary 218, and McCarthy will have to win over the Freedom Caucus if he’s going to get there.

One unlikely vote McCarthy can count on, though, belongs to Georgia firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene, who announced her support for McCarthy on Monday and said it would be a “bad strategy” for fellow Republicans to challenge him for the gavel. Politics do indeed make strange bedfellows.

One vote McCarthy will have a much harder time securing will be that of Florida’s Matt Gaetz, a frequent critic. “Kevin McCarthy couldn’t get 218 votes, he couldn’t get 200 votes, he couldn’t get 190 votes today,” said Gaetz. “So, to believe that Kevin McCarthy is going to be speaker, you have to believe he’s going to get votes in the next six weeks that he couldn’t get in the last six years.”

Gaetz has a point. Back in 1856, it took more than two months and 133 ballots before Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts was finally and mercifully elected speaker. More recently, as McCarthy noted, Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Nancy Pelosi lost 43 and 32 votes respectively before ultimately being elected speaker.

Perhaps as a pragmatic hedge, Biggs and the Freedom Caucus are also pushing for rule changes that would diminish McCarthy’s power should he ultimately become speaker. As the Washington Examiner reports: “The reforms include easing the process for the motion to vacate the chair, a mechanism used to oust a sitting speaker; changes to the Steering Committee, which is tasked with selecting who chairs and sits on different standing committees; and a push to slow down the legislative process by allowing for more amendments.”

It’s an interesting strategy, that of weakening one’s own speaker. On the one hand, it would keep McCarthy from getting too comfortable and from ignoring his more conservative flank. On the other hand, it would restrict him from using the speaker’s muscle to marshal votes and move legislation through the chamber.

Although he may be looked at somewhat suspiciously by members of the Freedom Caucus, North Dakota’s Kelly Armstrong, who nominated McCarthy, noted that the minority leader has earned this shot. “Kevin has taken all the incoming from every direction so that we don’t have to,” she said. “He has barnstormed the country, raising over $500 million, holding events in 40 states — and financially supported more than 125 members, candidates, and state parties. Every single person in this room has benefited from his work, and in a few short weeks, we will have the gavels.”

Yes, Republicans will have those gavels on January, but it might be a while longer before they have a speaker.

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