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Scalping a Would-Be Speaker

Will Kevin McCarthy ever hold the gavel, or will his opponents prevail?

House Republican Leadership Speak To The Media

“I want my scalps,” Lieutenant Aldo Raine tells his men as they prepare their guerilla campaign against the Nazis in the opening scene of Quentin Tarrantino’s WWII fiction, Inglourious Basterds. “And all y’all will get me [my scalps]... Or you will die tryin’.”

At the beginning of the 118th Congress, a select few members of the House Freedom Caucus want their scalp, a very particular scalp: the scalp of Rep. Kevin McCarthy in his bid to become speaker of the House.

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McCarthy, despite some members of his caucus decrying his corporate and swampy ways, was well-positioned to become the next speaker, but Republican underperformance in the 2022 midterm elections outside of Florida and New York gave the anti-McCarthy movement the traction it needed to fight his speakership.

Republicans' failure to seize the moment left the caucus with a razor-thin majority. On Tuesday, the 118th Congress was divided between 222 Republicans and 212 Democrats, despite Republicans winning the midterm popular vote by nearly 3 percentage points. And McCarthy needed almost every vote from the Republican members to secure the Speaker’s gavel. But five Republican representatives, Rep. Bob Good from Virginia, Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs all came out as hard nays against McCarthy’s bid before the January 3 elections.

Biggs, who challenged McCarthy for the caucus’s speaker nomination in November, speculated that the number of McCarthy objectors was closer to 20 than just the five who went on record, given that, in November, 36 members withheld their support for McCarthy, 31 of whom cast their vote for Biggs.

After negotiations failed to convince his objectors to vote for his candidacy, McCarthy tried to play hardball with the House Freedom Caucus. In a closed-door meeting just prior to the first vote, McCarthy said there was nothing more the two factions could negotiate on, and reportedly ended his remarks by yelling “I’ve earned this job,” followed by an expletive.

In the same GOP conference meeting, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama reportedly suggested that McCarthy opponents should lose their committee assignments—something that was crucial to the negotiations McCarthy and his detractors had prior. Upon hearing Rogers’s threat, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas stood and asked McCarthy to deny that could be the case. A question McCarthy refused to answer. “You just sealed your fate,” Roy said, before storming out.

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The effort to prevent McCarthy from becoming speaker started in earnest shortly after noon on Tuesday. Chair of the House Republican Conference Elise Stefanik, who replaced former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney as conference chair midway through the last Congress, gave McCarthy’s nomination speech. “No one in this body,” Stefanik claimed, “has worked harder for this Republican majority than Kevin McCarthy.” Rep. Pete Aguilar, a Californian Democrat, rose to nominate Rep. Hakeem Jeffries.

Then McCarthy’s challengers made their first move known. Gosar nominated his fellow Arizonan, Biggs, for speaker of the House.

Biggs was never going to take the gavel out of McCarthy’s hands. But throughout the challenge to McCarthy’s leadership, Biggs has been willing to step into the breach. In November, after McCarthy decided to rush a Republican conference vote on who Republicans would nominate, Biggs ran against McCarthy to give Republican objectors an alternative. He obviously knew that many of the votes he would receive, both in the conference vote and on the House floor, were not votes of confidence in his leadership, but rather the lack thereof in McCarthy.

After the first round of voting, McCarthy was 15 short of capturing the 218 needed to become speaker. In total, 19 Republicans voted against McCarthy: Biggs, Bishop, Boebert, Brecheen, Cloud, Clyde, Crane, Gaetz, Good, Gosar, Harris, Paulina Luna, Miller, Norman, Ogles, Perry, Rosendale, Roy, and Self. Biggs’s prediction was spot on.

Ten McCarthy objectors voted for Biggs. Of the other nine, six voted for Rep. Jim Jordan, and Rep. Jim Banks, Rep. Byron Donalds, and former Rep. Lee Zeldin each received one vote. To no surprise, Jeffries received every Democratic vote.

In round two, Jordan gave McCarthy’s nomination speech. The Ohio congressman made it very clear he did not want to be speaker, and pleaded with his Republican colleagues to vote for McCarthy instead of him. That didn’t stop Gaetz, however, from nominating Jordan, and the 19 McCarthy objectors that were scattered between Jordan, Biggs, and others in round one coalesced behind Jordan’s candidacy—even Biggs himself. The roll call vote, which proceeds in alphabetical order by last name, wasn’t even through the letter C when it became clear McCarthy did not have the votes. The final tally was McCarthy 202, Jordan 19, Jeffries 212.

With the end of round two, it became clear that the move against McCarthy was not just political theater. McCarthy’s objectors were in it for the long haul. 

Gaetz and Gosar, House Freedom Caucus representatives who have led the charge against McCarthy’s bid, were seen talking to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Later interviews with Ocasio-Cortez revealed that Gosar and Gaetz asked the New York congresswoman if some Democrats might consider voting present to lower McCarthy’s threshold for a majority, a hypothetical that was preventing some Republicans from coming out against McCarthy’s bid. According to Ocasio-Cortez, she replied that Democrats would “absolutely not” assist McCarthy’s speaker chances.

Texas Reps. Wesley Hunt, Mike McCaul, Dan Crenshaw, and Michael Cloud gathered in the Speaker’s Lobby to discuss the stalemate. Crenshaw reportedly asked pointed questions to Cloud, who voted for Jordan while the other three voted for McCarthy. Crenshaw then asked Cloud why Freedom Caucus members are considered more conservative than he is. “What about them is more conservative?” asked the man who believes “CONSERVATISM = CLASSICAL LIBERALISM.”

In round three, McCarthy, Jordan, and Jeffries were all nominated again. Rep. Steve Scalise, who may well become speaker if McCarthy withdraws his candidacy, gave a speech in favor of McCarthy, but mostly railed against the Biden administration.

Scalise's speech was easily outshone by Roy’s passionate speech in favor of Jordan. Roy highlighted all that was wrong with how Washington goes about its business—practices McCarthy would likely continue:

The American people are looking at this body, wondering why we can pass $1.7 trillion bills that are unpaid for. They can just slide in $45 billion for Ukraine, but not pay for it. $40 billion for emergency spending, and not pay for it. 10% increase in defense spending, 6% increase in nondefense spending. And not pay for it. And not do a thing except put language in a bill that prohibit our ability to use the money to secure the border. That bill gets rammed through, and we know exactly how it gets rammed through, because the defense world and the nondefense world come together and say you know what, we're going to cut a deal and we'll all go to the mics, we'll all give speeches and the American people are the big losers. That's what happens. We know that's what happens.

Roy’s speech continued. “This place has to change. It has to change. And the change comes by either adopting rules and procedures that will make us actually do our job, or it comes from leadership,” Roy said, “And people ask me, what do you want? I want the tools or I want the leadership to stop the swamp from running over the average American every single day.”

Roy admitted that, “Jim has said he doesn't want that nomination, he's been down here nominating Kevin and I respect that. Again, I have no personal animus toward Kevin. I have worked for the last two months to figure out how to make the rules to make this place better, and we've made progress but we do not have the tools to stop the swamp from rolling over people. Jim has been doing it and for those reasons I'm nominating Jim Jordan from Ohio for Speaker of the House of Representatives.”

After Roy’s speech, Rep. Byron Donalds became the first Republican to switch his vote from McCarthy. McCarthy was down to 202, Jordan up to 20, and Jeffries again with 212. “The reality is Rep. Kevin McCarthy doesn’t have the votes,” Donalds tweeted after switching his vote from McCarthy to Jordan.

After the third round of voting for Speaker, the House adjourned until Wednesday noon.

On Tuesday evening, Roy said any talk of a viable McCarthy replacement was “premature,” signaling the possibility, albeit slim, that a deal could be struck to get McCarthy over 218. “It’s absurd the way this place works,” Roy stated, and added that the failure to elect a Speaker need not completely prevent the House from doing it’s work. “We’re a body, we can go pass motions. We can do whatever. There’s an emergency, we can do whatever we need to. But we’re having a debate. It’s healthy to have that debate.”

“Do you think anybody in America right now is like, ‘Oh my God, there’s not a speaker?’” Roy added sarcastically.

Meanwhile, McCarthy promised not to back out of the race.

So McCarthy carried on for rounds three, four, and five on Wednesday afternoon, squaring off against Donalds. Nominating Donalds, who switched his vote from McCarthy to the opposition on Tuesday, was a savvy move by McCarthy’s objectors: It shores up the one vote of support that has been successfully peeled off, and provides a fall man in case the anti-McCarthy movement suddenly collapses. 

McCarthy lost another supporter in round four. Rep. Victoria Spartz, a Republican from Indiana, switched her vote from McCarthy to “present,” and went on to vote the same way in rounds five and six. The tallies for rounds four, five, and six were the same: McCarthy 201, Jeffries 212, Donalds 20, with one vote present.

Congress adjourned until the clock struck eight. When the members filed back into the chamber, a request was made to adjourn again until noon Thursday. The voice vote was clamorous for both the yeas and nays, rendering it inconclusive. Members were forced to cast electronic votes whether or not to adjourn. After fifteen or so minutes of chaotic milling about on the House floor, the House voted to adjourn until Thursday by a vote of 216 yeas to 212 nays, with four not voting.

Very rarely does Washington, D.C., have just one thing going on, despite the news cycle. But, for the last two days, the failure to choose a speaker has made that reality. After the Senate was sworn in Tuesday, they departed Washington, and won’t return until mid-February. All eyes are on the speaker's race, and critics of the McCarthy objectors have made themselves heard on the Hill and online.

Critics of Gaetz, Biggs, and company have tossed around a few discordant narratives, adjusting as McCarthy’s bid for Speaker became more precarious with every subsequent vote. They have called the group’s opposition political posturing that is holding up the House’s work, while also lambasting them for failing to have a viable alternative candidate. But if the move was purely political posturing, why would they even want to suggest a viable alternative?

Some have suggested that eventually the dam will break, and as the prospect of House Speaker Scalise became more likely, McCarthy’s objectors will back off. After the fifth round of voting, Scalise passed McCarthy in the Vegas betting odds. They haven’t backed off yet, but maybe they will. Scalise is mostly seen as more ideological, less sharp, and generally worse at the day-to-day politics of managing a caucus than McCarthy. The sense is he’s better as a lackey, not a leader.

But this writer’s betting money is that they do not cave—that the prospect of House Speaker Scalise will not cause McCarthy’s opponents to reconsider. They are out to prove that they can and are willing to take out a Republican leader. “Drain the swamp” may no longer be en vogue, but the anti-McCarthy faction is out to prove the plumbing still works. And a Speaker Scalise would come into the job knowing that he will be held to account for mismanaging the Republican caucus.

The anti-McCarthy Republicans want their scalp, and they just might get it.

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