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House leadership is in limbo as McCarthy loses 3 rounds of voting for speaker

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks after a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning with the GOP conference as he pursues the speaker of the House.
Alex Brandon
/
AP
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks after a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning with the GOP conference as he pursues the speaker of the House.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy was nominated by House Republicans for the top leadership job in November but hours before his party takes control of the House of Representatives he's scrambling to lock down a majority to get the gavel.

Previous speakers have faced defections in the first vote of the session to install the top leader, but if McCarthy fails to get a majority on Tuesday it will be the first time in 100 years a speaker needed multiple ballots to win.

The California Republican faces a bloc of critics who want changes to the way the House operates. Although he's given in to many of their demands, he remains short of the votes needed. Instead of celebrating their return to the majority on the first day, McCarthy and other GOP leaders are sorting out how to respond to an open rebellion that will showcase division and cast doubt on their ability to govern.

Concessions still haven't secured votes for speaker

Republicans will only hold razor thin majority — just 4 seats — after Democrats had a better-than-expected showing in competitive contests in the 2022 midterms. But there are potentially more than a dozen GOP lawmakers who will vote for someone other than McCarthy. Many of the holdouts sought and got support for new rules on how legislation is considered in the House, and how oversight investigations of the Biden administration will be structured.

McCarthy also agreed to to change a rule that would allow a group of five members to offer a resolution to remove the speaker. He insisted for weeks he wouldn't agree to lower the threshold on how many sponsors are needed on a "motion to vacate the chair" because it effectively weakens the power of the speaker. But McCarthy gave into pressure from those on the right since he has such a small margin and can't afford more than a few defections.

It's not clear McCarthy's concessions are helping him secure support.

Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Scott Perry, a leading McCarthy critic who signed onto a letter with nine other Republicans circulated on New Year's day, tweeted: "nothing changes when nothing changes." He cited the letter, which states "the times call for a radical departure of the status quo — not a continuation of the past, and ongoing Republican failures."


Vote for speaker could go to multiple ballots

If McCarthy fails to win on the first ballot, it will be embarrassing to the top Republican who led his party's efforts to win back the majority. McCarthy ran for speaker in 2015 when then House Speaker John Boehner stepped down, but withdrew abruptly from the race after conceding he didn't have the votes to win. In the last couple of election cycles, McCarthy led the political effort for House Republicans — raising, along with affiliated Super Pac, the Congressional Leadership Fund, roughly a half a trillion dollars and campaigning for GOP candidates across the country. He and his allies predicted a "red wave" in the fall, but ended up eking out just a four-seat majority.

The public vote on the House floor will likely showcase the GOP divisions and chaos. McCarthy's allies insist they won't vote for any alternative candidate, and even if it's messy, they will stick with him.

But nothing else can happen in the House of Representatives until a speaker is elected. It's the only leadership position mentioned in the Constitution.

There have been some discussions about trying to rally around a consensus candidate, but McCarthy's allies have been pushing what they say is an "O.K. " strategy — "Only Kevin." There is potential for the process to drag out for hours or even days if McCarthy is unable to convince some of the holdouts to back him.

McCarthy's No. 2, Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise, has publicly backed McCarthy and predicted he will be elected speaker. But if McCarthy fails to convince enough members to back him GOP members could turn to Scalise as a potential alternative — or some other conservative candidate.

Scalise, who is in line to serve as House Majority leader, released an agenda for the first two weeks of January. He pledged the House would vote on measures to cancel the boost in funding to hire more IRS agents, and bills dealing with border security and abortion. But until the speaker is elected, the House committees can't form, members cannot be sworn in to start the new session , and the rest of the business is stalled out.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 3, 2023 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Kevin McCarthy and the Congressional Leadership Fund had raised roughly half a trillion dollars. In fact, it is closer to half a billion.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.