McCarthy's moment of truth arrives as lawmakers prepare to vote on a new House speaker

WASHINGTON — A weekslong standoff between Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and his conservative detractors comes to a head Tuesday as lawmakers prepare to vote on a new speaker of the House.

A small band of far-right members close to former President Donald Trump has been vowing to stick together to deny McCarthy, of California, the speaker’s gavel. Because the GOP’s new 222-212 majority is so thin, as few as five GOP lawmakers could block him from winning the 218 votes he needs to win on the first round. That would send the process to multiple ballots — and almost certain chaos on the floor.

The last time that happened was exactly 100 years ago.

Five conservatives — the so-called Never Kevins led by Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Andy Biggs of Arizona — say they won’t vote for McCarthy under any circumstance, and they have urged him to drop out to allow another candidate to step forward.

“It’s true we struggle with trust with Mr. McCarthy because time and again his view points, his positions they shift like sands underneath you,” Gaetz told reporters Tuesday. “If you want to drain the swamp, you cannot put the biggest alligator in charge of the exercise.”

McCarthy spoke to his conference Tuesday morning, giving a fiery speech in which he called for members’ support and defended his work as leader. McCarthy’s allies, meanwhile, have threatened some of his detractors with having their committee assignments taken away, Biggs said after the meeting. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., confirmed he had “promised” those planning to vote against McCarthy that they would lose their committee positions.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, was particularly critical of McCarthy’s opponents Tuesday. “There’s a group of people who have deeply miscalculated,” he said. “They’ve calculated that people will see them as these noble freedom fighters fighting for a cause. They can’t seem to say what the cause is. That makes them look pretty f—ing stupid. And they are pretty f—ing stupid.”

Gaetz and other McCarthy opponents held a press conference after Tuesday’s meeting, vowing to continue their campaign. “Pardon my resolve,” he said. “This town desperately needs change, and if it’s a few of us who have to stand in the breach to force it, we are willing to do so as long as it takes.”

Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., another of the Never Kevins, said “nothing’s changed,” predicting 10-to-15 members would oppose McCarthy.

McCarthy said he thought the meeting was “very good,” telling reporters, “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Look, I have the record for the longest speech ever on the floor. I don’t have a problem getting a record for the most votes for speaker,” he said.

McCarthy’s troubles aren’t limited to the Gaetz group, however. In a bid to win support from a separate group of Trump-aligned House Freedom Caucus members, McCarthy did agree over the weekend to a suite of rule changes that would water down his powers as speaker.

But nine members of that group, including Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., characterized his proposals as too little, too late.

In their New Year’s Day letter, they wrote that he failed to address a number of their demands, like ensuring leadership doesn’t work to defeat some conservative candidates in open primary races. The members also said McCarthy’s proposed rule changes would still be too restrictive of members’ ability to oust the speaker in the middle of the Congress.

“Despite some progress achieved,” the Freedom Caucus group wrote, “Mr. McCarthy’s statement comes almost impossibly late to address continued deficiencies ahead of the opening of the 118th Congress on January 3rd.”

Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy speak with the press following a meeting with President Joe Biden and other Congressional leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Nov. 29, 2022.Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy speak with the press following a meeting with President Joe Biden and other Congressional leaders at the White House on Nov. 29, 2022.Demetrius Freeman / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

McCarthy, who has Trump’s endorsement and easily defeated Biggs to win his party’s nomination for speaker, isn’t backing down. He is already moving into the speaker’s suite, and upon leaving the Capitol on Monday he predicted that the day of the speaker vote would be a “good day.”

Eager to take the reins of their new majority, most House Republicans have publicly lined up behind McCarthy. And his die-hard loyalists, who call themselves the “Only Kevins,” have pledged to go to the mat for McCarthy and block any rival who emerges. 

“You can’t beat somebody with nobody. So who’s going to beat McCarthy? Who’s going to get 218 votes on the floor? Nobody else but him,” moderate Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., a leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, told reporters. 

Fitzpatrick said he will vote for McCarthy “first round, 1,000th round and every one in between,” adding, “And there’s a ton of us like that.”

The showdown could have major implications for the House. No other House business can occur until a speaker is selected, which means floor votes, committee hearings and other congressional work will grind to a halt if Republicans can’t agree on a new leader.

That could delay new House GOP investigations into the Biden administration’s handling of the border, the Covid-19 response and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“The refusal of a small group of individuals to coalesce around who the vast majority voted for hurts the entire team and will slow us down right from the start,” said another McCarthy ally, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.

Garrett Haake, Allie Raffa, Sahil Kapur, Ryan Nobles, Ali Vitali and Liz Brown-Kaiser contributed.

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