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McCarthy passes first test in speaker bid. Now comes the hard part.

WASHINGTON — House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday easily defeated conservative Rep. Andy Biggs to win the GOP nomination for speaker of the House.

But that was the easy part for McCarthy.

The 188-31 closed-door, secret-ballot vote illustrates what his conservative foes have been saying for the past week: McCarthy hasn’t secured the 218 Republican votes needed to win the speaker’s gavel on the House floor on Jan. 3, the first day of the new Congress.

The California Republican now faces an uphill battle. He has seven weeks to try to win over some of those recalcitrant conservatives who cast a protest vote for Biggs. The Arizona Republican and former leader of the far-right, Trump-aligned House Freedom Caucus did not announce that he would challenge McCarthy until Monday night.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., attends a forum at FreedomWorks headquarters on Monday in Washington.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

NBC News has not yet projected which party will control the House, though the NBC Decision Desk estimates that Republicans will end up with 220 seats and Democrats with 215, with a margin of error of plus or minus three seats.

If that estimate holds, it would mean McCarthy needs to flip dozens of Tuesday’s “no” votes to get to the magic number of 218. Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Biggs and others in the group are demanding that McCarthy make concessions on House rules and process changes before they pledge their support to him

“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,” Biggs said in a statement.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a vocal McCarthy critic who is not in the Freedom Caucus, suggested that the same band of conservatives who blocked McCarthy from the speakership in 2015 would do so again.

“Kevin McCarthy couldn’t get 218 votes, he couldn’t get 200 votes, he couldn’t get 190 votes today,” Gaetz said. “So to believe that Kevin McCarthy is going to become speaker, you have to believe he is going to get votes in the next six weeks that he couldn’t get in the last six years.”

Speaking to reporters after the internal elections, McCarthy insisted he would have have the support of 218 Republicans by January. He pointed out that the previous two speakers — Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan — each overcame dozens of internal defections to win the speaker’s gavel in a floor vote.

“Look, we have our work cut out for us. We’ve got to have a small majority. We’ve got to listen to everybody in our conference,” said McCarthy, flanked by his new leadership team.

“One thing I’ll say about the entire conference: I respect each and every one, I respect them equally, and we’ll find a way to make it it happen,” he added.

Other leadership races

In other leadership races, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana was elected by voice vote to be majority leader; he ran unopposed for the No. 2 job in leadership.

And Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina will lead the House GOP’s campaign arm, the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), in the 2024 cycle. His challenger, Rep. Darin LaHood of Illinois dropped out of the race at the last minute on Monday and threw his support to Hudson.

The three-way race for GOP whip has generated the most buzz inside GOP circles.

In dramatic fashion, Rep. Tom Emmer, of Minnesota, the NRCC chairman this cycle, defeated Rep. Jim Banks, of Indiana, the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, on the second ballot in a 115-106 vote. It was a remarkable victory given that Emmer had survived the first round of voting by a single vote. On that first vote, Banks led with 82 votes, Emmer was second with 72 votes and Rep. Drew Ferguson, of Georgia, the chief deputy whip, garnered 71 votes.

With Ferguson eliminated, Emmer was able to squeak through to win the job of top GOP vote counter.

In the race for the No. 4 post, Rep. Elise Stefanik, of New York, was re-elected as GOP Conference chair, defeating Rep. Byron Donalds, of Florida, a Freedom Caucus member and one of four Black Republicans who will serve in the House next year. The vote tally was 144-74.

Stefanik will remain the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress. Another woman who will service in leadership is Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich., who defeated two men in the race for GOP Conference secretary.

The ‘red wave’ that wasn’t

Heading into the Nov. 8 midterm election, McCarthy and Republicans were jubilant, predicting that a “red wave” would flip dozens of House seats and sweep the GOP into the majority by a wide margin. A year earlier, McCarthy had predicted his party might flip as many as 60 seats in 2022.

Instead, Democrats won key governors’ races in Arizona and Pennsylvania, kept control of the Senate, and limited losses in the House, leaving Republicans absolutely stunned.

Conservatives are now pinning blame for the disastrous midterm results on GOP leaders like McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. And they want McCarthy to agree to a series of rules changes that would water down the power of the next speaker and give rank-and-file members more control.

Specifically, they want McCarthy to reinstate a rule to make it easier to force a vote to oust a sitting speaker — something known as a “motion to vacate.” McCarthy is unlikely to agree to that proposed change, but he could support other reforms like requiring bills to go through committee before they are brought to the floor, allowing amendments on all bills that come to the floor, and giving members more time to read bills before they are voted on.

One thing McCarthy has going for him is support from some influential figures in the Republican party. Former President Donald Trump, who is expected to announce a 2024 presidential bid later Tuesday, has endorsed his longtime ally, McCarthy, for speaker. So has Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a Freedom Caucus member who is enormously popular among grassroots conservatives.

McCarthy also won backing from a one-time rival, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who challenged him for minority leader in 2018 and led the Freedom Caucus in 2015 when the group derailed McCarthy’s first unsuccessful bid for speaker.

In the years since, McCarthy has wooed Jordan and other conservatives with plum assignments and other offerings. The GOP leader helped Jordan win the top Republican spot on the powerful Judiciary Committee, which will set Jordan up to become chairman if Republicans take control of the chamber.

In an interview Tuesday, Jordan said he hoped his Freedom Caucus colleagues could work out a deal with McCarthy in the coming weeks that would pave the way for his speakership.

“I think they can hopefully put together an agreement and we get there,” Jordan told NBC News. “The key thing for Republicans is that we stay unified so we can stop the craziness from the Biden administration. That’s what I’m focused on.”

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