December 23, 2022

Who Will Be House Speaker?

Kevin McCarthy was supposedly the obvious choice, but given the squabbling, it could end up being Steve Scalise.

Conventional political wisdom is that current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California will be speaker of the House when the Republicans officially take control on January 3, 2023. However, we do not live in conventional times.

McCarthy has led something of a charmed political life as a Republican in deep-blue California. He served in the California State Assembly from 2002 until 2006, when he was elected to Congress. He easily won California’s 22nd District seat to replace retiring Republican Bill Thomas, for whom he once served as a staffer. He has been handily reelected every time since, not once facing any significant opposition.

McCarthy became part of the House Republican leadership in 2009 as chief deputy whip under then-Speaker John Boehner. He became majority whip in 2011, and when Boehner retired in 2015, McCarthy was considered a candidate for speaker. He bowed out, claiming at the time that the party needed a fresh face at the top. He continued to serve as majority leader under Speaker Paul Ryan until 2019, when the Democrats took the House. He has been minority leader since.

Speaker of the House seems the logical next step in the progression of McCarthy’s career. But McCarthy gaining the post is not assured. He needs 218 votes to become speaker, and with the GOP’s narrow 222-213 majority, the minority leader is having a surprisingly tough time securing the margin he needs for victory. What gives?

The big question among House Republicans is whether McCarthy is the best choice to lead them. More than 30 Republicans voted against nominating him for speaker in a secret ballot in November. Five Republicans — Bob Good (R-VA), Andy Biggs (AZ), Matt Gaetz (FL), Ralph Norman (SC), and Matt Rosendale (MT) — have publicly stated they will not vote for McCarthy for speaker under any circumstance. Attempts by Donald Trump to secure support for McCarthy do not appear to have moved the needle. Neither has Marjorie Taylor Greene been persuasive to some of the holdouts.

If not McCarthy, then who? Enter Steve Scalise, the current minority whip. The eight-term Louisiana stalwart and survivor of the attempted mass murder of Republican congressmen has been approached by GOP insiders to “just be ready” in the event that McCarthy’s bid falls short. House Republicans opposed to McCarthy would likely rally around Scalise, but it’s hard to say whether Scalise would gain enough support from the full GOP caucus to gain the speakership.

This puts Scalise in a tough position that was succinctly stated by one of his close unnamed associates. “Does [Scalise] want to be speaker? Absolutely. But is he going to screw Kevin? Absolutely not.”

There’s also nothing to guarantee that Scalise wouldn’t face the same issues that McCarthy faces in terms of unifying the Republican caucus behind a unified agenda. McCarthy’s supporters are subtly emphasizing this fact with an “OK: Only Kevin” campaign.

Democrats are having a lot of fun with this intraparty squabble among Republicans. They are already portraying the GOP debate over who will be the next House speaker as Republicans’ inability to govern. So what? Democrats have frequently demonstrated their disdain for debate and airing disagreements and grievances. They prefer that all their members follow in lockstep and vote how they’re told, not how they think.

The Republican debate over who will be the next speaker of the House may not be comforting because it demonstrates uncertainty. But it does demonstrate a party that is willing to consider the best options for governing, and that in itself is a refreshing change to what Democrats have given us in the House.

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