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Inside McCarthy’s struggle to lock down the House speakership

<i>Ting Shen/Bloomberg/Getty Images</i><br/>US House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Ting Shen/Bloomberg/Getty Images
US House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy

By Melanie Zanona and Lauren Fox, CNN

Time is running out for Kevin McCarthy.

Four days before the House speaker vote, when his critics were still noncommittal about their support for his speakership bid, even after the California Republican had offered a number of key concessions — including making it easier to oust the sitting speaker — he attempted to give them the hard sell.

“If you walk away now,” McCarthy warned his detractors on a Friday afternoon conference call, “you’re not gonna get a better rules package than this.”

The exchange, described by several GOP sources on the call, offers a window into McCarthy’s 11th-hour negotiating tactics in his quest for speaker. And it shows just how much he is willing to bend in order to rise to power in the US House of Representatives.

But now with just one day to go, a group of at least nine Republicans have made clear that they’re still not sold — despite McCarthy’s warning and even after he gave in to some of their most ardent demands, which he outlined during a Sunday evening conference call.

McCarthy is still working to seal the deal, with enough hardliners threatening to deny him the top job on Tuesday and his allies growing increasingly anxious that he is giving away his power for nothing.

It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult for the congressman, who just secured his ninth term and has been in leadership for over a decade. After the far-right House Freedom Caucus denied his ascension to the speakership in 2015, McCarthy spent years courting the conservative wing and worked overtime to stay in former President Donald Trump‘s good graces. But when a red wave never materialized in the November midterms, a small band of conservatives — long distrustful of McCarthy — saw an opportunity to use their unexpected leverage in the razor-thin majority to extract demands.

What has unfolded over the last two months is an all-out scramble for the speakership, which has taken the form of strategy sessions with close allies on and off Capitol Hill, intense negotiations over rules changes, non-stop phone calls with members, and even pro-McCarthy robocalls in some of the holdouts’ districts, according to over two dozen GOP lawmakers and aides familiar with McCarthy’s maneuvering. His team is hopeful that things will fall into place after they released a final rules package late Sunday evening, which formalized the concessions that he has agreed to, and are betting the opposition will fold on the floor.

And yet, House Republicans are poised to kick off their new majority on Tuesday without a clear sense of who their leader will be — raising the prospect of a brutal, once-in-a-century floor fight that could delay establishing committees, conducting oversight or legislating. On Tuesday morning, the conference will gather one last time before the speaker vote, where McCarthy’s supporters are hoping for a last-minute resolution but are bracing for the worst.

“To be honest, we are preparing for a fight. Not the way we want to start out in our new majority, but you can’t really negotiate against the position of ‘give us everything we ask for and we won’t guarantee anything in return,'” Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, a member of the centrist-leaning Republican Governance Group, told CNN.

“I give Kevin a ton of credit. He’s brought everyone in and worked really hard to figure out a way forward. A way to make this place run better. But I get the feeling that not everyone is negotiating in good faith.”

Finding consensus among the ‘Five Families’

McCarthy spent the week in between Christmas and New Year’s in deal-making mode, working the phones with critics and supporters alike to find consensus on rules changes designed to win over holdouts.

He can only afford to lose four votes on the House floor, and so far, at least five Republicans have vowed to oppose him, with nearly a dozen other GOP lawmakers publicly saying they’re still not there yet.

McCarthy’s Friday afternoon call was with the so-called “Five Families,” who represent the various ideological groups in the House GOP. The California Republican outlined some of the demands from the right he was willing to give in to, such as establishing a broad investigative panel to centralize probes into the Biden administration.

And as first reported by CNN, McCarthy told lawmakers he would support a threshold as low as five Republicans to trigger a vote on deposing the speaker, known as the “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair — a major concession for him and one that moderates worry will be used as a constant cudgel over his head.

“I have cautioned (McCarthy), at least twice, to not accept a Pyrrhic victory,” said one moderate GOP lawmaker who is backing him. “He cannot give away what he needs to actually effectively govern the House.”

Lawmakers worked over the weekend to finalize the rules package. Ultimately, McCarthy informed Republicans on the conference-wide call Sunday evening that he agreed to the five-person threshold on the motion to vacate — which he billed as a “compromise.”

McCarthy released the final rules package later that evening and also put out a “Dear Colleague” letter making one last pitch for the job, which included additional promises about how he’d govern as speaker — including ensuring that the GOP’s ideological groups are better represented on committees.

But despite getting asked repeatedly, McCarthy could not say on the call whether it would be enough to clinch the speaker’s gavel. He has tried unsuccessfully — including during a meeting in his office with the “Five Families” before the holidays — to seek commitments from his detractors that if he caved on the motion to vacate, it would deliver him the votes he needs for speaker.

Moderates on Sunday’s call expressed their frustration and said they would only swallow the concession if it would get McCarthy the votes. They worry some of those hardliners are not negotiating in good faith and fear they won’t come through in the end — a sentiment that was only reinforced during Sunday’s call.

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, one of the five “hard no” votes, said on the call he would not be backing McCarthy, despite all the demands that he has given in to. And not long after, the separate group of nine hardliners put out a letter calling some of McCarthy’s concessions insufficient, though they did say progress is being made.

That group is still pushing for a single member to be able to call for a vote toppling the speaker, which is what it used to be before Speaker Nancy Pelosi changed the rules, and they also want a commitment that leadership won’t play in primaries.

“Thus far, there continue to be missing specific commitments with respect to virtually every component of our entreaties, and thus, no means to measure whether promises are kept or broken,” the letter, obtained by CNN, states.

McCarthy has made public promises about how he would rule over the House, such as threatening to launch an impeachment inquiry into Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and vowing to not take up bills from any GOP senators who backed the massive year-end spending package — both top priorities of the right.

In another strategic move, McCarthy postponed races for any contested committee chairs until after the speaker vote. He said it was to allow freshman members to have input in the process, but other members believe it was a way to insulate himself from potential criticism from members who end up losing their races.

An outside pressure campaign has also been building to boost McCarthy.

An aide to Republican Rep. Ralph Norman said the South Carolinian’s district offices have been inundated with calls from constituents who have received robocalls and “been read a script” by someone warning what could happen if McCarthy isn’t elected speaker because of conservatives like Norman. Those campaigns, Norman’s aide told CNN, have done nothing to influence the congressman’s position, but it does reveal the lengths some McCarthy backers have gone to exert maximum pressure on detractors.

McCarthy gets backup, while conservatives sharpen their knives

McCarthy has gotten some key backup from Trump, who publicly endorsed his speaker bid and encouraged others to support McCarthy. And his congressional allies have banded together in effort to act as a counterweight to the so-called Never Kevin movement, with various groups of lawmakers blasting out statements and letters vowing to vote for him no matter how many ballots it takes.

McCarthy supporters have also contemplated using hardball tactics, including trying to kick critics off their committees if they don’t fall in line and threatening to team up with Democrats to elect a more moderate speaker. At one point, the group even started wearing “O.K.” buttons around the Capitol, which stands for “Only Kevin” — a joking nod to McCarthy’s opposition.

In phone calls and text messages during the holidays, McCarthy’s defenders vowed to him and each other they wouldn’t let a handful of members control their conference.

“People want to get to work and this has just been holding us up,” Rep. David Joyce of Ohio, a leader of the Republican Governance Group, told CNN, of the protracted speaker’s fight. “I have people who say they don’t care if it is 500 times, they are voting for Kevin. There is no one else.”

McCarthy’s opposition, however, has also been working in tandem — and they are far more practiced in playing hardball, though the Freedom Caucus has been openly divided over McCarthy.

Immediately after the midterm elections, a group of hardliners began discussing putting up a protest challenger to McCarthy during the internal House GOP leadership elections in hopes of forcing him to the negotiating table. They settled on GOP Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona.

Following that secret ballot vote, where McCarthy won 188-31, a bloc of five “hard no” votes strategically began to trickle out their public statements of opposition. And after negotiations earlier last month dragged on, an additional group formalized their demands to McCarthy in a letter — further upping pressure on the Republican leader to cut a deal.

No clear ‘Plan B’ if McCarthy’s stumbles

If McCarthy can’t clinch the majority of those present and voting for a candidate on the first ballot, the House will keep voting until someone does — something that hasn’t happened since 1923.

The committee in charge of administrative matters sent a letter last week outlining the practical implications and pitfalls of a drawn-out speaker’s fight. Without an approved House Rules package, the memo outlined that committees won’t be able to pay staff.

The same memo, which was first reported by Politico and obtained by CNN, also warned that student loan payments for committee staff wouldn’t be disbursed if a rules package isn’t adopted by mid-January.

It’s just one of the many ways a battle over the next speaker could paralyze the House and the Republican majority from operating efficiently in their opening days with some of the harshest penalties falling on rank-and-file staffers.

“It is going to slow us up. It is going to hurt the team,” Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican who represents a Biden-won district, told CNN.

Democrats, meanwhile, are relishing the prospect of a GOP meltdown on the floor. Sources say Democrats have been instructed by their leadership to show up and vote for anyone other than McCarthy on Tuesday, making the threshold he needs as high and difficult as possible. And if the speaker’s vote goes to multiple ballots, they are unlikely to help McCarthy if he tries to adjourn the proceedings to salvage his speakership bid.

The argument McCarthy supporters have posed is that there is no serious alternative, no mystical consensus candidate that has 218 votes locked up, waiting in the wings. Rep. Bob Good, a Virginia Republican who is one of the “hard no” votes against McCarthy, promised on Fox News Monday that a new speaker candidate will emerge on the second ballot, though he refused to name who that will be.

There are whispers, however, that Republicans could rally around incoming House GOP Majority Leader Steve Scalise, a popular conservative who serves as McCarthy’s top deputy, if McCarthy drops out of the race or can’t secure the votes after several ballots. And despite the resolve from McCarthy’s supporters to keep voting for him, some Republicans suspect they may eventually start to look at other options if there is no end in sight.

But Scalise has made clear he is supporting McCarthy and has no intention of challenging him.

Even with the race far from settled, boxes from McCarthy’s office were spotted by CNN being moved into the speaker’s suite last week — a standard protocol, but a sign he’s committed to seeking the job.

“It is a bizarre game of chicken where both sides have ripped the steering wheel off the dashboard and are just going pedal to the metal,” one member said of the ongoing standoff between pro- and anti-McCarthy factions.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the number of terms McCarthy has served in Congress.

This story has been updated with additional reaction.

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CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.

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