By Melanie Zanona, CNN
Three weeks before the midterm elections, Kevin McCarthy enraged the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus after the GOP leader publicly suggested he has yet to see any impeachable offenses committed by the Biden administration.
Hardline Republicans — who have been agitating to impeach President Joe Biden or a member of his Cabinet — sounded off on McCarthy in a group chat and expressed deep concern over his comments, according to GOP sources familiar with the internal conversations.
But two weeks after the elections, where Republicans underperformed and won a slimmer-than-expected majority that has put McCarthy’s House speaker bid at risk, McCarthy struck a different tone: he called on Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to resign, accused him of lying to the American public and not enforcing immigration laws, and threatened to launch an impeachment inquiry if he doesn’t step aside. A Mayorkas spokeswoman said he has no plans to resign.
The change in tune from McCarthy comes at a pivotal moment for the California Republican, who is facing a rebellion from his right flank that could tank his speakership ambitions that have been years in the making. McCarthy’s new impeachment threat is one of just several ways that he is hoping to win over conservative critics and lock down the necessary 218 votes to become speaker in January. McCarthy is deploying a carrot-over-stick approach, using a mix of private negotiations and public professions about what he would do as speaker, in an effort to pick off detractors.
But it’s unclear if his public and private maneuvering will be enough to assuage the holdouts. On McCarthy’s impeachment threat and resignation calls at the border, one member of the House Freedom Caucus said he is “pandering.”
“In fact, it was counterproductive,” the GOP lawmaker told CNN. “He didn’t say this when he thought he was going to have a large majority. He is doing all these things because he has a small majority and every vote counts. … I just don’t think it’s going to produce the result that he’s hoping for.”
Another member who has been critical of McCarthy called his moves a “step” in the right direction but said “he should’ve said it earlier” and wanted McCarthy’s statement to be accompanied with a “funding threat” to show he really means business. McCarthy did, however, promise to use “the power of the purse” and “the power of subpoena” during his press conference at the southern border.
McCarthy’s allies, however, insist he’s going to pull it off, arguing that no one else is better equipped for the job. Another reason for their confidence: they don’t see anyone else in the conference being able to get to 218. And they believe McCarthy is going to take his fight for the speaker’s gavel all the way to the floor, unlike in 2015, when he dropped out of the race before he even got to the closed-door conference vote.
“In general, most members think McCarthy’s going to get this done. They don’t really know how. We can’t necessarily articulate how he will pull this off,” Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, who is supporting McCarthy, told CNN. “But there is a sense he is a very savvy operator, he really understands the members, he really understands politics, and his team is really top of the line.”
“There’s a little trepidation among members who are supporting McCarthy because we can’t exactly see how he is going to pull this off,” he added, “but there is a general sense that he will.”
The ‘Never Kevin’ camp emerges
So far, at least five House Republicans have publicly threatened to oppose McCarthy on the floor, which could be enough to derail his speakership bid if Republicans only have a four-seat margin, as McCarthy has predicted. They include Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Ralph Norman of South Carolina and Bob Good of Virginia.
And there could be more names to come, as the anti-McCarthy group has been purposely dripping out names over an extended period of time — a strategy designed to garner more attention from leadership. Three dozen Republicans voted against McCarthy during the GOP’s internal leadership elections last week, where McCarthy was nominated by his party for speaker.
“The strategy is to drip out a name every four or five days, or every week, just to make sure people know. It’s not just four or five,” one of the GOP lawmakers said.
McCarthy will have to somehow get at least one of these members to flip their vote or convince them to either “vote present” or skip the floor proceedings — which would lower the threshold he needs to become speaker. Some of the Republicans in the “Never Kevin” camp are seen as slightly more gettable: Rosendale, for example, told CNN he would only vote for McCarthy “under extreme circumstances,” leaving himself the tiniest bit of wiggle room.
So far, McCarthy has yet to cut any major deals, but is currently negotiating with the House Freedom Caucus on a package of potential rules changes. The group is also pushing him to take a public position on an array of issues, according to GOP sources familiar with the negotiations. Right now, however, they feel like the ball is in McCarthy’s court.
McCarthy, wary of looking like he is cutting secret side deals with his right flank and alienating some of the more moderate members, has also tried to appeal to conservatives with more public-facing moves.
He recently reiterated a promise to boot Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Eric Swalwell of California and Adam Schiff of California — three Democrats routinely villainized on the right — from key committee assignments. And McCarthy has also recently vowed to abolish remote voting, reopen the House and start off every day of session with a pledge and prayer — even though the House already does so every day.
Burned by the Freedom Caucus during his quest for the speaker’s gavel in 2015, McCarthy’s maneuvering for the speakership began long before the midterms.
Over the past year, he worked to bring freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a former McCarthy critic and staunch Trump ally, into the fold. He has held weekly sit-down meetings with Greene, invited her to House GOP trips at the southern border and in Pittsburgh, and has supported her seeking a coveted seat on the House Oversight Committee. His effort seems to have paid off, as Greene is now vocally backing McCarthy for speaker.
Similarly, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio — who once challenged McCarthy for a leadership position — is now seen as a steadfast McCarthy ally, in part because McCarthy paved the way for him to lead the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Jordan, too, has lined up behind McCarthy’s speaker’s bid and told CNN he is encouraging other Republicans to do the same.
Jordan also wouldn’t entertain questions about any scenario in which he’d run for job — like if McCarthy can’t get to 218. “I want to be Judiciary chair,” he said.
This story has been updated with additional details.
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