Dec 5, 2022 - Politics & Policy

"Don't want to be held hostage": GOP braces for chaotic speaker fight

Illustration of a hanging microphone under a red spotlight.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The certainty projected by supporters of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is fraying as House Republicans prepare for the prospect of a right-wing revolt hobbling his bid for speaker. 

Why it matters: McCarthy failing to win on the first ballot could theoretically result in a weeks or even months-long stalemate that dominates the House floor and grinds other business to a halt.

  • And if he emerges victorious from a brutal process, McCarthy would have the monumental task of leading a narrow majority with bitter divisions.

Driving the news: Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), co-chair of the Main Street Caucus, told Axios they "don't want to be held hostage" by the Freedom Caucus if McCarthy goes down.

  • Bacon floated working with Democrats to elect a consensus speaker.
  • "After multiple, multiple, multiple votes, and they're not willing to [budge] ... We will do our best to put something together and get an agreeable Republican," he said.
  • Bacon acknowledged their pick would, controversially, need to "get folks on the other side of the aisle" in order to cobble together a majority.

The other side: Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), one of the McCarthy foes in the Freedom Caucus, said his side is also sizing up alternatives.

  • Good told Axios there are "individuals who, in private conversations, have acknowledged that once it's clear ... it's not going to be Kevin McCarthy, they are interested."

By the numbers: Only 14 speaker elections have gone to multiple ballots, according to the House historian.

  • Two were in the 18th century, 11 in the 19th century and one in 1923, exactly 100 years ago. The longest, in 1857, went into 133 ballots over two months.
  • The process, conducted by a roll call vote, doesn't incorporate modern technology, meaning re-votes would still consume substantial floor time.

The state of play: With a likely majority of just 10 seats, McCarthy will only be able to afford a handful of GOP defections when the House votes on Jan. 3.

  • Five Freedom Caucus members have openly voiced opposition to McCarthy, with some claiming the sentiment is privately more widespread.
  • Good said he hasn't heard of any of the dozens of members who voted against nominating McCarthy last month saying they'll back him on Jan. 3.
  • "I think you're going to see more people come out publicly in the very near future … [some] are privately acknowledging they are not going to vote for him, and that's growing," he said.

What we’re watching: McCarthy's centrist supporters are growing impatient. More than 20 members of the Republican Governance Group put out a letter admonishing their anti-McCarthy colleagues to "put the posturing aside."

  • Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), the Governance Group Chair, told Axios in a statement: “This Conference cannot handcuff itself to a burning building before we gavel in the 118th Congress."
  • Rep. Blake Moore (R-Utah) told Axios the "vast majority" of Republicans would rather be focused on policy. Instead, "We feel … like we're spinning our wheels."

What they're saying: Republicans are openly voicing annoyance and foreboding about a potential floor fight, arguing McCarthy’s nomination should have put the matter to bed.

  • Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), the House GOP’s new campaign chief, said there is "a lot of frustration" among Republicans and that a drawn-out election "reflects very poorly on us." He added, "If we can't come together ... I think we'll be punished for it."
  • "There's frustration, I think on the part of everyone, that if we don't find unity, we might as well be in the minority," said Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.), asserting that anyone who disagrees “is advancing the cause of the left."
  • "You have to remember, members bitch about everything," said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.). "But, yeah, frustration is growing."

Yes, but: Most McCarthy supporters said they still expect him to become speaker when the dust clears.

  • “There are no other alternatives … Kevin McCarthy is the odds-on favorite,” said Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas), adding that a protracted election would be a “rough start" for House Republicans.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to note that Rep. Dusty Johnson is from South Dakota, not North Dakota.

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