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GOP tension builds over House speaker race as McCarthy and critics prep for floor fight

<i>Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy
AFP via Getty Images
Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy

By Melanie Zanona and Manu Raju, CNN

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy and his critics are gearing up for a potential floor fight over the speakership in January, raising the possibility of a messy intraparty showdown that could bring uncertainty and chaos just as Republicans prepare to enter their new majority.

McCarthy still insists he will have the 218 votes needed to secure the speakership. Conservative hardliners seeking to plot McCarthy’s ouster say otherwise.

And what will happen if he can’t get 218 votes? No one knows.

“You can’t beat somebody with nobody, and there’s nobody else running,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican who supports McCarthy for speaker. “Even if there was another announced candidate, that person would not be better positioned to get 218 than Kevin.”

McCarthy’s foes say another candidate will emerge and that talks have already begun to recruit a replacement. Some of Kevin McCarthy’s detractors have asked whether Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Tom Emmer of Minnesota would be willing to jump into the race, according to GOP sources familiar with the informal conversations. But all three men have made clear they’re backing McCarthy for speaker and wouldn’t challenge him for the job.

It’s still not known what would happen on Jan. 3 if McCarthy cannot get 218 votes to be elected speaker. But there’s an expectation that any number of Republicans could throw their hat into the ring if McCarthy stumbles or drops out.

“There’s quality candidates who represent the conservative center of the Republican conference who are privately acknowledging that once it becomes clear it’s not going to Kevin McCarthy, they are interested in becoming speaker,” said Rep. Bob Good, a Virginia Republican who’s one of the handful of conservative hardliners publicly saying they are “hard no” votes against McCarthy. “And there are members who would excite the base, who would excite Republicans across the country, unite Republicans across the country as candidates, but they’re not going to raise their hand publicly until it’s clear to them that it’s not Kevin McCarthy.”

If McCarthy loses more than four GOP votes on January 3, he is expected to fall under the 218 votes he would need to claim the speakership. Then the House would keep voting until someone wins a majority of support from the members in attendance who are choosing a specific candidate and not voting “present.” If that happens, McCarthy insists he still won’t drop out.

“Oh yeah, I’ll take the speaker’s fight to the floor,” McCarthy told CNN.

McCarthy also said he was willing to go through as many rounds of voting on the floor as it takes, predicting: “I’ll get there.”

Meanwhile, the California Republican’s fiercest detractors are also digging in.

Members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus met with the chamber’s parliamentarian on Wednesday in order to get a briefing on the floor rules and procedures that dictate the process for the speakership vote. And some of McCarthy’s foes are reiterating their pledge to oppose him on the floor and calling on the GOP leader to drop out of the race now so they can start the search for a serious alternative.

“He can avoid it now,” said Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, a former co-chair of the Freedom Caucus who lost to McCarthy for his conference’s nomination to be speaker, of a potential floor fight. “He doesn’t have the votes. We can move to different candidates. I’m willing to entertain anyone else.”

The commitment from both camps to take the speakership battle to January is shaping up to be a political game of chicken, with both sides signaling they’re willing to call the other’s bluff. But most Republicans are hoping it won’t come to that, worrying it would set the wrong tone as they enter into power and prepare for a tough two years of governing while working to protect their narrow majority.

“I don’t want to see that happen. I can’t guarantee that not happening right now,” Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Trump ally who is backing McCarthy, said of a speaker showdown on the floor. “But the goal is to stop that from happening, to get everybody on the same page, and create unity so that we’re ready from day one.”

Added Tennessee Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, another McCarthy backer: “My hope is that we have unity and get this done on the first ballot, but we’ll see. … I’m hoping and praying for unity.”

Some Republicans think the hardliners are bluffing.

“Maybe they’re just trying to promote themselves a little bit?” said Rep. Greg Pence of Indiana, adding that conservative members’ views behind closed doors are more collegial than they may be publicly.

Asked if he could instead vote for McCarthy’s No. 2, Scalise, for speaker, Pence said: “I’m voting for Kevin McCarthy. He’s gonna win.”

Tension builds in GOP Conference

The last time a vote for speaker had to go to multiple ballots was in 1923. And the longest time in history it took to elect a speaker lasted two months, with a total of 133 ballots.

In recent weeks, part of McCarthy’s pitch to his critics has been that if they don’t unify, then Democrats could theoretically band together and peel off a few Republicans to elect the next speaker on the floor.

“Having a challenge on the floor is never going to be positive and really turn the floor over the Democrats,” McCarthy told reporters this week.

Biggs, however, brushed off that possibility. And most Republicans don’t see it as a serious threat, though they privately acknowledge the speaker’s race could go to multiple ballots.

“I don’t buy it,” Biggs said. “Name the Democrat that a Republican would vote for.”

Some moderates and mainstream Republicans are growing increasingly frustrated with their colleagues’ threats to cause chaos on the floor. And some of them have a warning of their own: if the vote goes to a second ballot or more, they plan to just keep voting for McCarthy — potentially foiling the anti-McCarthy group’s plans to force him out of contention in the hopes of getting lawmakers to rally around an alternative.

“Many of us are perturbed. We took a vote and McCarthy got 85%,” said Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, who represents a district that Joe Biden carried in 2020, referring to the internal GOP election when Republicans backed McCarthy to be their nominee. “The right thing to do is coalesce around someone who has broad support. To do otherwise weakens the conference and hurts the team.”

A group of mainstream House Republicans, known as the Republican Governance Group, sent a letter to their GOP colleagues on Friday urging them to unite behind McCarthy for speaker and warning that a floor fight over choosing their next leader could undermine the GOP as they enter the majority.

“Such quarrels will only delay our ability to establish a working majority in the People’s House, which is critically important to successfully countering a Democrat-controlled Senate and Executive Branch,” the lawmakers wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by CNN. “But make no mistake, we will not allow this conference to be dragged down a path to a paralyzed House that weakens our hard-fought majority.”

The letter, which is signed by 21 Republicans, also notes that while Republicans won the House, voters handed them power “skeptically” — a nod to the fact they only will have a razor-thin majority next year.

Rep. Dave Joyce of Ohio, who chairs the Republican Governance Group, said in a statement to CNN: “This Conference cannot handcuff itself to a burning building before we gavel in the 118th Congress. We are the dealmakers without whom this legislative body cannot govern, and we intend to provide the American people with a working majority.”

So far, at least five House Republicans have vowed to oppose McCarthy for speaker — a problem for him since he likely can only afford to lose four GOP lawmakers — though some of them have expressed openness to negotiating.

McCarthy’s foes say he has a much bigger problem.

“Well, I think it’s a much larger number than people realize,” Good said of the McCarthy “no” votes. “My hope would be that more of them will start to come out publicly. So it just becomes increasingly clear that he doesn’t have the votes and we need to consider other candidates.”

Their efforts to recruit a viable alternative have been unsuccessful thus far. Scalise, McCarthy’s top deputy, has repeatedly said on the record he is supporting McCarthy and is looking forward to serving as majority leader next year.

Jordan, a McCarthy ally and co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, told CNN he is not interested in the speaker’s gavel and just wants to be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and wouldn’t entertain questions about a hypothetical scenario in which McCarthy can’t get the necessary support to secure the speaker’s gavel. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who has openly campaigned for Jordan to become speaker, told CNN he has asked Jordan to run “daily for two years.”

And Emmer, who will serve as majority whip next year, said in a statement that “There is no one more deserving to lead House Republicans than Kevin McCarthy and he has my full support. Kevin has earned that right by raising hundreds of millions of dollars and helping Republicans win seats in back-to-back cycles.”

To win over holdouts, McCarthy has brokered negotiations on potential rules changes designed to empower rank-and-file members, such as enabling members to offer more amendments and giving them more notice before fast-tracked bills come to the floor.

And McCarthy has also made public professions about what he would do as speaker, from dangling a potential impeachment inquiry over Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to threatening to investigate the House select committee investigating January 6, 2021 — both top priorities on the right.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, the current Freedom Caucus chief. But he added: “I think there is a burgeoning realization and acknowledgment that this place is broken. That’s a start.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

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CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.

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