Dec 15, 2022 - Politics & Policy

McCarthy's tortured calculus

Photo illustration of Rep. Kevin McCarthy in front of a chalkboard with a complicated math equation featuring the Capital dome, an elephant, and a donkey

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy's (R-Calif.) painstaking efforts to quell a right-wing rebellion in his bid to become House speaker have pulled back the curtain on the broader legislative nightmare he'll need to navigate over the next two years.

What's happening: On a number of concessions McCarthy has made or is considering making to his conservative critics, he risks touching off a revolt from other ideological camps — especially moderate and Biden-district Republicans.

The big picture: Failing to balance the wide range of equities within his conference, which is set to have a razor-thin majority, could result in embarrassing defeats for McCarthy in party-line votes — weakening him right out of the gate.

  • After some frustrated centrist McCarthy allies floated removing detractors from committees this week, other members reminded them that "you don’t get to 218 by kicking people off the island," one House Republican told Axios.
  • "We need to get to 218 [votes] 20 times a week for the next 24 months, and ultimately this is a coalition that’s going to have to figure out how to live with one another."

Driving the news: Nine House Republicans defied GOP leadership by voting Thursday to fund the government for another week to give congressional negotiators breathing room to craft an annual budget bill.

  • "I cast the vote that was consistent with my district," said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who represents a 5-point Biden seat.
  • McCarthy faces pressure to publicly resist passing a budget before Republicans take power so he can use it as leverage to extract spending cuts. He has even criticized his Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for working with Democrats on a pre-January budget.
  • Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters pointedly: “He’s running for speaker, he’s supposed to say that."

Zoom in: McCarthy has vowed to kick Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) off the Intelligence Committee and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) off the Foreign Affairs Committee, but he may face opposition from his own side.

  • "I’m not going to support it,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) told Axios, noting Republicans opposed such moves from the Democratic majority. "I try to be consistent in my values … regardless of who’s in charge."
  • Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) told Axios, “I’ve never been a fan of that. Members are elected by their districts. ... To throw them off just seems inappropriate.”
  • “I don't think tit for tat is necessary here," said Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.). "We should be better than what the Democrats were." He does think, however, that McCarthy's rationale for the Intelligence Committee may be warranted.

What we’re watching: The House GOP conference is about to be inundated with members in seats Biden won two years earlier by as many as 14 points.

  • Some of them have bristled at conservatives' push to try to impeach Biden and his officials.
  • Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) told Axios the GOP’s probes would have to yield new evidence for him to support impeaching Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, which McCarthy has inched toward amid right-wing pressure.
  • Asked how he would vote now, Lawler said, "Based on what’s already out there: no.”

Between the lines: Other Biden-district Republicans said candidly that votes like impeachment would cause electoral headaches.

  • "Swing voters, independent voters don't like it," said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.).
  • Moderates aren't alone, noted Valadao, who said conservatives will also have to balance satisfying their base with taking difficult votes.
  • "I'm sure there will be some of these votes that I'm going to struggle with, but I have a feeling they're going to have those same days too. ... Some of them are going to be primary issues, others are going to be general [election] issues."

The bottom line: "Once people think through the cold hard math ... getting to 218 votes is not going to be easy, on anything," said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), the new chair of the Republican Main Street Caucus. "The guy is going to have to bring his A-game every single day."

Go deeper