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McCarthy Promises ‘Battle’ to Be Speaker as Congress Opens

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House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., arrives for a closed-door meeting with the GOP, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
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Even before Congress convened, the scene playing out on Capitol Hill was one of upheaval and uncertainty. The standoff means McCarthy, after having led his party to a narrow Republican majority, was grasping for his political survival, trying to avoid being the first nominee for speaker in 100 years to fail to win an initial vote for the gavel.

McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) arrived at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans and vowed to fight to the finish — even if it takes multiple tries in a high-stakes public spectacle that would underscore divisions in his party and weaken its leadership in the first days of the new Congress.

“We went out to the American public with a commitment to America to fight for them, not for a few members,” said McCarthy, as he entered a closed-door morning meeting of House Republicans lashing out at detractors.

“We may have a battle on the floor, but the battle is for the conference and the country.”

New Era of Divided Government

Lawmakers were convening Tuesday in a new era of divided government as Democrats relinquish control of the House after midterm election losses. While the Senate remains in Democratic hands, barely, House Republicans were eager to confront President Joe Biden’s agenda after two years of a Democratic Party monopoly on power in Washington.

But first, House Republicans must elect a speaker, second in succession to the presidency.

McCarthy is in line to replace Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but he heads into the vote with no guarantee of success. He faces entrenched detractors within his own ranks. Despite attempts to cajole, harangue and win them over — even with an endorsement from former President Donald Trump — McCarthy has fallen short.

“This is a lot more important than about one person,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican leadership senior aide. “It’s about whether Republicans will be able to govern.”

House Republicans huddled behind closed doors, ahead of the floor action, as newly elected lawmakers arrive for what’s traditionally a celebratory day. Families in tow, the members of the new Congress prepare to be sworn into the House and Senate for the start of the two-year legislative session.

Trump-Aligned Republicans Oppose McCarthy

A new generation of Trump-aligned Republicans is leading the opposition to McCarthy, inspired by the former president’s Make America Great Again slogan. They don’t think McCarthy is conservative enough or tough enough to battle Democrats. It’s reminiscent of the last time Republicans took back the House majority, after the 2010 midterms, when the tea-party class ushered in a new era of hardball politics, eventually sending Speaker John Boehner to an early retirement.

Some of the staunch Republican conservatives were challenging McCarthy in the private session. He pushed back, according to a Republican in the room and granted anonymity to discuss the closed-door session.

Typically it takes a majority of the House’s 435 members, 218 votes, to become the speaker. With just a slim 222-seat majority, McCarthy can afford only a handful of detractors. A speaker can win with fewer than 218 votes, as Pelosi and Boehner did, if some lawmakers are absent or simply vote “present.”

But McCarthy has failed to win over a core — and potentially growing — group of right-flank Republicans led by the conservative Freedom Caucus, despite weeks of closed-door meetings and promised changes to the House rules. Nearly a dozen Republicans have publicly raised concerns about McCarthy.

“Kevin McCarthy doesn’t have the 218 votes to be speaker,” Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a leader in Trump’s efforts to challenge the 2020 election, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Unless something dramatically changes, that’s where we’re going to be.”

Late Monday evening, McCarthy met with Perry in the speaker’s office at the Capitol, a Republican aide confirmed on condition of anonymity to discuss the private session.

But there appeared to be no resolution.

Perry said in a statement early Tuesday: “Kevin McCarthy had an opportunity to be speaker of the House. He rejected it.”

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