Nov 29, 2023 - Politics & Policy

GOP speculation mounts that McCarthy will exit Congress early

Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for The New York Times

Multiple GOP lawmakers expect former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to step down from his seat before the end of the year, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The potential exit of McCarthy — who privately told donors he is looking to "get the hell out," according to a source familiar with the conversation — could leave the House GOP with an even narrower majority.

  • "I have another week or so to decide because if I decide to run again, I have to know in my heart I'm giving 110%," McCarthy said at The New York Times DealBook Summit on Wednesday, referring to California's Dec. 8 filing deadline.
  • "I have to know that I want to do that. I also have to know if I'm going to walk away, that I'm going to be fine with walking away. And so I'm really taking this time now," he said.

Zoom in: Speculation over McCarthy's potential departure escalated ahead of the Thanksgiving recess, with multiple GOP sources noting he posted a photo on Instagram in which his district office appeared to be in the process of being packed.

  • Multiple Republicans raised concerns that California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom could hold McCarthy's seat open if he decides to resign in the new year.
  • The GOP's razor-thin majority is already on the verge of being diminished further by the potential expulsion of Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) in a vote expected on Friday.

The intrigue: GOP lawmakers have noted the awkward nature of shifting from leading the conference to being a rank-and-file member. Tensions between McCarthy and his critics have continued to flare up since his historic ouster.

  • The former speaker refers to those who voted to strip him from his gavel as the "crazy eight." Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) recently accused McCarthy of elbowing him in a narrow hallway of the Capitol, which McCarthy has denied.
  • Some rank-and-file members voiced frustrations with McCarthy attempting to "kneecap" multiple candidates that aimed to succeed him as speaker, arguing that the efforts minimized much of the sympathy he gained after the initial ouster.
  • "The image in the rearview mirror is getting smaller by the day," one lawmaker said of McCarthy's influence over the conference. "I don't think he's having a good time being a regular Joe."

What they're saying: McCarthy allies have praised his tenure — applauding his fundraising prowess and leadership skills — but told Axios they wouldn't blame him for leaving given the circumstances. And his critics remain vocal about their grievances, with some accusing him of being "bitter" and "petty" in his remarks about those who worked to remove him.

  • "I can't really imagine that Kevin really wants to stick around. I'll support him with whatever he wants to do," one lawmaker told Axios, adding that he "decentralized power" and "did a lot of really good things he doesn't get nearly enough credit for."
  • "I mean, why the hell would he stay?" said another House lawmaker.
  • "I suspect the former speaker will return to spend more time with the people he's always represented — on Wall Street and K Street. I don't imagine he'll be walking the streets of Bakersfield," Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told Axios.
  • "Damn shame," one McCarthy critic quipped, predicting that the former speaker will likely use millions in PAC funds to meddle in the races of the House Republicans who voted to oust him.

The bottom line: McCarthy's seat is a Republican stronghold, but his potential exit could prove to be an issue for GOP leadership until a special election is held.

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