Why Kevin McCarthy Is Struggling to Get Republicans in Line

Has McCarthy won back any of the 31?

That’s hard to answer, since it was a secret ballot and we don’t know who those 31 Republicans were. But it’s not a great sign for him that in the same vote, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana had unanimous support in his race to become the No. 2 House Republican next year. In other words, for these people, it isn’t an attack on the leadership. This is an attack on McCarthy.

But it also might not mean that much. For context, all this turmoil is in line with how this phase of the process has played out in the past, for lawmakers who eventually won the speakership. Paul Ryan lost 43 votes in the secret ballot phase in 2015. Nancy Pelosi, in 2018, lost 32 votes. They both eventually emerged victorious and became speaker.

What do the die-hards want? Is this just “blackmail,” as former Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote this week? Do they have some kind of ideal outcome in mind?

This is what makes it extra tough for McCarthy. He has to contend with something that no Democrat has had to face: a sizable group that was sent to Congress explicitly to obstruct. Some of the people he is attempting to bargain with don’t seem to have a price. They’re not motivated by legislating as much as they are about shrinking the federal government, or upending it completely.

That being said, the real sticking point is what’s known in congressional jargon as the “motion to vacate,” a term we try to avoid using in news stories because it’s meaningless to most readers. What it would do is change the rules to allow any member to force a snap floor vote to get rid of the speaker at any time. The holdouts want McCarthy to commit to allowing a vote like that. So far, that’s been a nonstarter for him; he understandably views the prospect as handing his enemies a loaded political weapon.

Bottom line: It seems like McCarthy is dealing with some chaos agents, which makes his process a lot more difficult than it was for Pelosi in 2018. Back then, she also had to negotiate her way to the speakership, but she was dealing with a caucus made up of members with specific demands that she could address.

The alternative to McCarthy is unlikely to be his current opponent, Biggs. The Beltway chatter is that if McCarthy fails to get the necessary votes on the House floor, someone of more stature than Biggs, like Scalise or Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, could potentially get drafted into becoming a speaker candidate.

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