Nov 29, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Right-wingers making McCarthy sweat for future Speaker post

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is seen speaking on the Capitol steps.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stands with his Republican colleagues outside the House on Nov. 17. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Right-wing elements in the Republican Party are complicating House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's attempts to become the next speaker of the House should the GOP take back the majority in 2022.

Why it matters: While McCarthy has worked carefully to build trust among the conservatives who tanked his chances at clinching the speakership in 2015, they're still circling ahead of the next Speaker vote in January 2023.

  • These members have made clear they're willing to test the extent of their power by dangling their speakership vote as leverage against McCarthy.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who's become a vocal conservative despite being a congressional freshman, suggested over the Thanksgiving recess McCarthy lacks the votes to obtain the gavel.

  • The Californian moved swiftly to quell Greene’s pseudo-rebellion. She tweeted days later that she had a “good call” with the GOP leader, adding, “I like what he has planned ahead.”
  • But Greene and others in the right-wing Freedom Caucus have proved stubbornly mercurial in their attitudes toward McCarthy, and insurgent House candidates like Rep. Joe Kent (R-Wash.) have signaled plans to keep up their criticism.

What to watch: Members are also beginning to quietly inquire about other leadership positions, and some of the positioning is already beginning to take shape behind the scenes.

  • If McCarthy becomes speaker, it's expected — but not guaranteed — that House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) will remain his No. 2 and become House majority leader.
  • However, it’s still unclear who'd replace Scalise as whip, or who'd become conference chair and serve as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Who to watch: Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the current NRCC chair, will likely want to be rewarded with a significant position if the party fares well in the midterms, Axios is told.

  • Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), current chairwoman of the House GOP conference, may want a newer leadership role, such as majority whip or chair the House Education and Labor Committee.
  • Reps. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), chief deputy whip, and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee and former deputy whip, also will likely want leadership gigs.

Between the lines: McCarthy has worked steadily to thwart the Democrats’ agenda and position his party to retake the majority in 2022, although he's constantly having to douse fires that highlight some of the intraparty tensions.

  • Greene was at the center of one earlier this year, and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) ignited another one by suggesting a Muslim colleague, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), had the potential to be a suicide bomber.
  • Right now, the speakership is McCarthy’s to lose. If history is any indicator, Republicans will likely take back the House majority in next year's midterms — a change that would happen while he's the party's House leader.
  • The big question mark is whether McCarthy will be able to secure 218 votes on the floor, a quest he’s failed in the past.

This is where McCarthy's balancing act comes in. The danger for him will be if a block of members — whether they're conservative firebrands in the House Freedom Caucus, or House moderates who feel alienated by his criticism thus far — choose to withhold their votes on the floor.

  • That's why we're seeing McCarthy continually try to placate both sides of the party.
  • The challenge is that 13 months is a long time to continue such a delicate dance.
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