Updated Dec 6, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Republicans fret about shrinking majority as McCarthy plans exit

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.

House Republicans are already raising concerns about what the early exit of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will mean for their tenuous ability to control their narrow majority.

Why it matters: Some lawmakers are particularly fearful that the closer margins will further empower a handful of members to hijack bills for leverage – a common practice this Congress.

The state of play: House Republicans currently hold 221 seats to Democrats' 213, meaning they can afford just three defections on party-line votes.

  • With McCarthy leaving by the end of the year and Democrats heavily targeting the seat vacated by the expulsion of former GOP Rep. George Santos, that buffer could dwindle to two votes as early as mid-February.
  • Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) is also expected to resign early next year, though his loss will likely be offset in the near term by the departure of Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.).

What they're saying: "It emboldens some individuals, at any given time, with a specific issue to hold up and stop the entire process," Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), the chair of the Republican Study Committee, said of the GOP's narrowing majority.

  • "It's certainly concerning for our new leadership and them trying to get things done, for trying to get these appropriations bills done ... for getting our government back on track," Hern added.
  • "I think it makes everything harder. That's everything from appropriations bills to impeachments to passing anything on the House floor," said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
  • Rep. Eric Burlison (R-Mo.) noted that it puts the House even more at the mercy of uncontrollable factors: "It means members have to be here too. We can't have sickness and illness."

Zoom in: McCarthy's allies say they're bitterly disappointed by his departure – but they don't blame him for leaving.

  • "Here's a person who's ... given his heart and soul to creating a majority for the Republican party," said Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.). "I'm still disappointed, because I like him and I think he had more to give, but it's his life."
  • Another House Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Axios: "He was done a huge disservice and many of us are surprised he stayed this long."

The other side: Some GOP lawmakers argued that their difficulty in passing legislation with a large group of hardliners constantly gumming up the works won't be changed significantly by McCarthy's departure.

  • "We've had a narrow majority all Congress," said Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wisc.), the chair of the House Administration Committee. "It was going to be challenging going forward either way. So we'll have to figure out how to navigate that going forward."
  • "Is it that much tougher? No. Because we have a group that's bigger than three that has been opposed to a lot of the things we want to do here," said Gimenez.

The big picture: McCarthy's departure, while transparently tied to his unceremonious ouster as speaker earlier this year, comes amid a historic surge of lawmakers opting to resign or retire.

  • Steil said he is "certain there are other good people at risk of leaving as well," telling Axios it is "a challenging time, politically, to be in Congress."
  • "More people are talking about the challenging political environment ... our country is at a difficult point, and that is reflected in Congress. There is a lot of frustration," Steil added.

The bottom line: "Hopefully there is no one else that steps down," Burlison said.

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