With Republicans closing in on a narrower-than-expected majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, their party leader Kevin McCarthy is hoping to land one job he has long coveted – speaker of the House – but may get another tough one as well – tightrope walker.
McCarthy, 57, is the presumptive favorite to replace fellow Californian Nancy Pelosi in January as House speaker – a job with a lot of clout and a lot of headaches. As speaker, McCarthy would be well placed to frustrate Democratic President Joe Biden’s legislative ambitions.
In Republican House leadership elections on Tuesday, McCarthy is expected to overcome a challenge from hard-line conservative Representative Andy Biggs. The speaker – the leader of the party in the majority – will be formally selected in a vote on the House floor when the new Congress takes office in January.
McCarthy has spent his adult life in politics – as a congressional staffer, then state legislator before being elected to the House in 2006.
Ascending to the speakership – a position second in the line of succession to the U.S. presidency – would represent the pinnacle of a McCarthy’s career, but it could be a precarious position. As speaker, he would have to manage a House Republican caucus moving ever rightward, with uncompromising tendencies and close allegiances to former President Donald Trump.
“House Republican leadership has a lot less margin for error. The House will more closely resemble the Senate, where a handful of members can grind things to a halt very quickly,” Republican strategist Alex Conant said. “McCarthy is left with a more populist caucus that will likely push him further to the right.”
McCarthy officially declared his candidacy for speaker last week in a letter to House Republicans that urged them to “stick together and maintain our mission.”
With votes still being counted in some pivotal races a week after the midterm elections, Republicans appear to be on the verge of securing a razor-thin House majority – though currently still three seats away, according to Edison Research, from cementing control of the 435-seat chamber now narrowly led by the Democrats.
Republicans fell short of the “red wave” that some had predicted for a comfortable House majority and control of the Senate. Instead, the Democrats retained their Senate majority, meaning that the two parties will need to work together to pass legislation if Republicans do take the House.
House Republicans increasingly are embracing right-wing populism and the pugilistic style of Trump, who is expected to launch his 2024 presidential candidacy on Tuesday.
Republican hard-liners from the conservative House Freedom Caucus are demanding rules changes that would allow them to keep a tight rein on their leader and toss him out more easily if they sour on him. The last two Republican House speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, came under varying degrees of pressure from the right flank of the Republican caucus.
“Kevin McCarthy is going to have a lot of migraine headaches,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “This is the first salvo, even before McCarthy gets to become speaker – the first in what is likely to be a number of high-profile negotiations over the next two years.”
As speaker, McCarthy could force votes focusing attention on issues Republicans view as advantageous to them – inflation, energy policy and crime – and launch investigations into Biden’s administration and family. McCarthy would also have to corral his caucus into voting for must-pass pieces of legislation to keep the government open, fund the military and in 2023 address the fast-approaching U.S. debt ceiling.
Republicans are contemplating a raft of investigations of Biden and his administration, as well as U.S. border security, immigration, China, the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden’s chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the FBI’s seizure of classified documents from Trump’s Florida home.
McCarthy was considered the presumptive favorite for speaker after Boehner announced his resignation from the post in 2015. But McCarthy withdrew in the face of conservative opposition. Instead, the speakership went to a reluctant Ryan, who decided not to seek re-election to Congress in 2018.
The challenge by Biggs, one among a number of conservatives who blame McCarthy for the underwhelming performance by Republicans in the midterms, is indicative of the issues he may face in managing his party’s most conservative elements. But McCarthy has the support of Jim Jordan, one of the most influential conservative voices in the House.
McCarthy visited at least 34 states to campaign for more than 165 candidates ahead of the midterms. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a group tied to him, contributed more than $160 million to help Republican House candidates. McCarthy sent candidates a total $6.5 million from his own campaign and four other entities under his control, according to his campaign team.
House Freedom Caucus members want to restore the ability of any member to make a motion to call for the removal of the speaker. In 2015, such a move – called a motion to vacate the chair – preceded Boehner’s resignation. The Freedom Caucus also wants the House to consider only legislation supported by a majority of Republicans and would have committee chairs selected by committee members, rather than party leaders.