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If you just read the headlines last week, you’d think Rep. Kevin McCarthy has finally reached his long-chased goal of wielding the Speaker’s gavel, that the top Republican in the House would finally get the top gig and fall right behind the Vice President in the line of presidential succession. But there’s a slight hiccup here, one based on something as simple as math: the gig goes to the person with a majority of the votes, and McCarthy simply might not get them.
You see, McCarthy is chasing 218 votes to claim the simple majority of voting House seats, assuming there are no vacancies, absences, or present votes when the next Speaker is chosen. But with Republicans winning a majority by just a handful of seats in the midterms, that gives him almost no wiggle room. In the internal Republican vote, McCarthy received just 188 votes, with 31 defecting to a protest candidacy of Rep. Andy Biggs, and another five writing in other names. McCarthy has said he won’t rely on Democratic votes to win the speakership, meaning he needs to win over the NeverKevins in his nominal alliance—and a number of them have pledged never to be swayed.
Put another way: McCarthy at the moment doesn’t yet have the votes and has roughly six weeks to land them, either through brute bullying, sweet talking, or pragmatic horse trading. Otherwise, balloting could continue with other candidates stepping in from the far-right, from the establishment wing, or what passes for the middle in the GOP these days.
Or—and this is the less-than-ideal scenario that almost no one in Washington really wants to see enacted—former President Donald Trump could raise his head from Mar-a-Lago and anoint someone as his pick, and then return to his latest White House bid with an ally marshaling the opposition from a place of power in D.C. Trump has proven an unreliable ally, and there is always tension between the ex-President’s political hands and his own desire to make headlines.
Typically, the selection of a House Speaker is something that is preordained, lacking messy drama. Only once since 1913 has a Speaker election taken multiple ballots. That one took nine rounds of balloting in 1923 to give Frederick Huntington Gillett of Massachusetts a third term as Speaker. But the party has seldom found so much disunity without an obvious salve to ease the sting.
McCarthy has taken great pains to stay in Trump’s good graces. Other than a brief detour toward criticism following the failed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, McCarthy has worked overtime to position himself as a loyalist to Trump, and for good reason. As TIME’s Molly Ball reported way back in June from a bus tour of Georgia with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a handful of Trumpist firebrands could emerge with a strong upper hand over McCarthy, extracting concessions from him in exchange for loyalty. So far, it’s worked, with Greene as a Trump favorite settling into a role as one of McCarthy’s strongest allies—for now.
Still, McCarthy is already using the House’s internal rules to cede what he’s calculated as minor ground and to mitigate potential risks to his power. In the kitchen cabinet of his leadership team, McCarthy increased the number of region-specific representatives from 13 to 19, effectively diluting the Republican establishment’s hold on who gets committee assignments. The Republicans also agreed that sitting House members—with the exception of leadership—cannot serve on the top panel of House Republicans’ official campaign arm, a concession to lawmakers who have been openly critical of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s de facto position of running an incumbent-retention program above all other priorities. And McCarthy has also supported a decision by his caucus, weary of Covid-19 protocols, to adopt rules that would reopen the House to tours and push back on guidance about wearing masks.
Yet McCarthy also brushed aside a proposal that would allow spending bills to go forward without a majority backing from the GOP, meaning the Speaker can still partner with Democrats on some measures that may find opposition from the right flank of the GOP. The incoming majority, however, adopted a proposal that would block any effort to replace the sitting Speaker—presumably, McCarthy—without a majority backing from the GOP, meaning lone-wolf lawmakers couldn’t force the top official from the job on threats or innuendo. That latter proposal got shown into place by Rep. Mike Turner, McCarthy’s anointed top Republican on the Intel Committee.
And that’s not to say the rule-making wrangling is done. Lawmakers shelved about half of the 25 discussed proposals to the new House session, including a ban on earmarks that is at the top of the Freedom Caucus’ agenda. It may well survive, but lawmakers decided to revisit it after the Thanksgiving holiday. By then, McCarthy should have a better sense of what he can trade away in exchange for votes—and which members are holding out for their pet project only to double-cross him when it comes time to vote on Jan. 3.
That’s right: McCarthy is atop the GOP pile at the moment, but absent 218 supporters from his own backyard, he can’t get the gavels just yet. He could reverse course and claim the gig with Democratic votes, but it would cast him as weak right from the start and there’s not a whole lot of incentive—beyond schadenfreude for his eventual and expected ouster—for Democrats to go along. Republicans could also retreat ever so slightly, with the understanding that McCarthy is on a tight leash. But at least five Republicans have now openly opposed McCarthy, meaning he’s in about as tight a spot as he could find himself.
All of which is to say this: McCarthy has been here before, with the speakership in reach; this time, he’s got an even narrower path to victory than in 2015, when the job fell out of his grasp. Yet he’s certainly started this campaign far wiser and exceedingly ready to use the threat of his looming power to try to herd his team into at least something approximating unity. Ultimately, though, he needs to be able to move 218 abacus beads from the middle of their rows into the McCarthy camp—and he doesn’t have a ton of time or many chits left to trade away.
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