Republicans across the land breathed a collective sigh of relief when the GOP finally secured control of the House of Representatives more than a week after Election Day. But it was hardly the celebration prospective Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy had anticipated and expected to lead. Like most insiders, he had long seemed confident of flipping at least 20 seats and securing a comfortable margin in which to operate. Instead, the GOP barely eked out a nine-seat majority.
But the operative number here is not really nine but four: That is the number of votes the new Republican Speaker of the House can afford to lose on any given legislation or subject. For a party still trying to find its way following the electoral debacles of 2020 and 2022, to say that margin of error is tiny would be an understatement.
In fact, it still is not entirely clear that the man long since anointed as the next Speaker will ultimately be able to land the job. After taking over from Paul Ryan as the House GOP leader in 2019, and serving as Minority Leader for three years, McCarthy remains the overwhelming favorite, and his detractors have not to date offered a viable alternative. But the Californian’s stock clearly dropped following the election, when his Commitment to America, designed to replicate Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America, was labeled a failure, and several of the 41 members of the House Freedom Caucus openly expressed skepticism about his leadership. This in turn threatens to turn the selection process into a nightmare.
Kevin McCarthy or Bust?
Indeed, if no Republican can garner the necessary 218 votes to secure the speakership, the Democrats would by necessity become involved in the process. And we can only imagine what might happen then, other than the certainty that the GOP would become a laughingstock. Heck, even the name of the new hero on the left, Liz Cheney, has been run up the flagpole by Democrats – likely for the sake of infuriating Republicans. The way the process works is that both parties nominate one candidate for the position of Speaker, and the one from the majority party almost always wins. But Article 1, section 2 of the Constitution states that “[t]he House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers” but includes no requirement that the Speaker be a member of the majority party or even of Congress.
Dysfunction, thy name is having your political enemies select your leader. Could it get much worse than that? Of course, such a scenario is still unlikely, but one thing is not: Democrats will fully exploit Republican divisions. Thus, considering the daily headaches accompanying the position, his ultra-slim majority, and open skepticism among his most conservative members, it begs a question recently headlined in The New Republic: “Why Does Kevin McCarthy Even Want to Be Speaker?”
Well, the obvious answer is that it has been his long-held ambition to hold the ultimate leadership position in the lower chamber. But beyond his upward career trajectory, and as evidenced by his enumeration — one day after the GOP majority was secured — of the many potential crimes committed by the Biden family syndicate he promises to excavate, he is chomping at the bit to vigorously examine the myriad revelations in Hunter Biden’s laptop, as well as Twitter censorship pre-Musk, the origins of COVID-19, and his own chamber’s heavy-handed Jan. 6 investigation.
But McCarthy is viewed neither as a skilled arm-twister like outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi nor a policy wonk like the last GOP Speaker Paul Ryan. And he is not associated with any particular ideology beyond mainstream conservatism. This lack of gravitas has led to a last-minute effort to identify an alternative candidate. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) of the Freedom Caucus said that he would seek the position, while he and five other members of his caucus also released a set of demands that McCarthy must meet before they would vote for him — including the right for any member to force a vote on removing the Speaker, members being allowed at least 72 hours between the release of a final bill’s text and a floor vote, and an increase in the number of Freedom Caucus members on the House Rules Committee. At the same time, another prominent member of the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), reflected on Fox News Radio the majority view: “The guy who gets you to the Super Bowl, even if it’s a game in overtime, gets to coach the game in my judgment.”
Nevertheless, while it is highly unlikely that Biggs — or an alternative candidate for Speaker yet to be identified — could win 218 votes right now under almost any circumstance, hard-core conservatives do not appear willing to back down on their demands, knowing they have the leverage to make or break McCarthy’s bid. If they break him, chaos will certainly ensue, and the Republican Party will look divided and feckless. Thus, it is fair to say that, at this point, Republicans everywhere looking to put the rank disappointment of the 2022 midterm campaign squarely in the rearview mirror will likely settle for someone, anyone, to fill the position.
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