McCarthy faces tough math problem in House speaker’s race if GOP wins majority

Current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was majority leader on Oct. 8, 2015. He walked over to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in the cavernous House Ways and Means Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill.

House Republicans were meeting to select a successor to Boehner. The Ohio Republican had abruptly announced he was departing Congress after a meeting with Pope Francis at the Capitol a few days before.

As majority leader, McCarthy was in line to succeed Boehner. The full house would have to elect McCarthy, but first, the House Republican Conference needed to settle on its candidate. It was thought to be a fait accompli for McCarthy.

McCarthy whispered something into Boehner’s ear. Boehner was surprised, and then strode to the microphone with an announcement for the room. However, no one could hear over the din.

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Pope Francis waves to a crowd from the Speaker’s Balcony on the West Front of the Capitol as he stands with then Vice President Joe Biden (2nd L), then House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (4th from R), then Speaker of the House John Boehner (3rd R), then House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Cardinal Donald Wuerl (R)
(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Republican members spilled out into the marble corridors of the Longworth House Office Building — the most acoustically-challenged location in all of Washington. A wall of reporters occupied three hallways. A bank of television cameras stood tripod to tripod near the foyer of the building between massive columns. Metal detectors and magnetometers from the U.S. Capitol Police beeped at regular intervals, as tourists and lobbyists tried to squeeze into the building. Capitol maintenance workers wheeled by stocks of cardboard boxes on hand trucks. Gigantic carts rumbled through the hall, loaded with office furniture, making a ridiculous ruckus.

Nobody could hear a thing, least of all the Republicans in the room or the reporters in the hallway. However, a rumor swirled. It had to do with what Boehner said over the noise in the committee room. Apparently McCarthy told Boehner he was dropping out.

Republicans did not know what was going on, but the conference meeting ended without a vote for speaker.

Gossip reigned in the hall. Future House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., dashed out of the room with the speed of Usain Bolt. Ryan’s office then published a statement just as quick to declare that he would not stand as a candidate for speaker.

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U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (C) and House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (R) arrive for a Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Oct. 15, 2013.
(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

A phalanx of reporters pursued House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., down a spiral staircase, asking if he would seek the Speakership. Scalise fixed his gaze on each step so he would not fall — and also did not acknowledge the press corps as reporters barked questions whether he would run for speaker.

Some Republicans in the rooms were bewildered. There were other candidates for speaker. In fact, there may even be other GOPers who would like to have run now that McCarthy was done. Why didn’t the GOP just forge ahead with the election?

However, that is not what went down.

A few days later, Ryan backtracked. After some coaxing, Ryan announced that he would in fact run for speaker. Ryan then rode to victory over Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla.

Many thought McCarthy was a political dead man walking after stepping aside in 2015 to make room for Ryan.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, even challenged McCarthy for minority leader in late 2018.

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However, McCarthy’s fortunes evolved. He brought his rival Jordan into the fold. There was chatter behind the scenes that Scalise may be angling to take on McCarthy. McCarthy then had it out on the phone with former President Trump as a mob ransacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. McCarthy even said Trump bore responsibility for the siege.

However, politics is about reading the room. McCarthy quickly recognized that many House Republicans heard from constituents who supported the rioters and still embraced the former president.

McCarthy hustled off to Mar-a-Lago, posed with former President Trump and immediately set about recruiting female and minority Republicans for the 2022 midterms.

McCarthy also knew he had to shore up a schism with the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Aligning himself with Jordan — who used to lead the group — was key. However, there was even a more controversial brand of Freedom Caucus member on the scene now. There were the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.

House Democrats actually helped McCarthy by giving him a foil.

Former President Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., meet at Mar-a-lago in January 2021.
(Save America PAC)

The House voted to strip Greene and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., from their committee assignments. McCarthy then converted their banishments into a cause celebre, promising he would reseat Greene and Gosar on committees if Republicans won the House. Moreover, there were suggestions that Republicans might return the favor and dismiss Democrats, like Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from their committees should Republicans prevail. GOP loyalists roared in approval.

McCarthy also took steps to legitimize Greene. He took Greene on a trip to the border. Greene was seated prominently behind McCarthy at a September event when House Republicans rolled out their agenda for 2023.

You reap what you sow.

McCarthy will soon face pressure from conservatives like Greene, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and the GOP base to take aggressive action against President Biden and members of his administration.

Republicans may be headed for a slim majority in the House once all the votes from Tuesday’s midterm elections are tallied. The entire House will select the speaker, and the successful candidate must have an outright majority of the entire House. In other words, 218 votes out of 435.

The House must vote repeatedly until it elects a speaker. A vote for speaker has not gone to a second ballot since 1923.

Before Tuesday, McCarthy probably had a range of seven to 10 Republicans who would not support him for speaker no matter what. That number could grow.

McCarthy may be able to command the votes so long as he can keep Jordan in the fold.

That is to say nothing of former President Trump.

It would not take much for Trump to throw McCarthy under the bus, especially considering the GOP’s tepid success on Tuesday.

However, there is a reason McCarthy did not become Speaker in 2015 when former Speaker Boehner resigned. McCarthy announced on Fox News that Republicans empaneled the Benghazi committee just to undercut the presidential bid of Hillary Clinton. It was as though McCarthy said the quiet part out loud.

Support for McCarthy to succeed Boehner was already shaky, and some Republicans were already looking for a reason to oppose McCarthy. They found it in the Benghazi remark — and McCarthy was toast in that contest.

Perhaps history could repeat itself.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of La., left, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

After being promised a “red wave,” some Republicans may be looking for a reason to dump McCarthy. Tuesday’s weak tea at the ballot box could justify some GOP opposition to McCarthy for speaker. Moreover, if McCarthy does become speaker, he must veer to the right to accede to the demands of the Freedom Caucus on a host of issue — ranging from impeachments to funding the government to raising the debt ceiling — in order to make full use of the slim majority.

In addition, the calling card of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is passing major bills with the most narrow of margins. She has done it for two decades. Heretofore, McCarthy has lacked such an accurate vote counting prowess.

McCarthy could face instant management problems.

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In fact, McCarthy’s first challenge could come in mid-December. That is when a bill to avert a government shutdown comes due. If McCarthy does not stand against that bill and do what the Freedom Caucus wants, those same members could hold that against him when the House votes for Speaker in January.

As we say, it will be “about the math” when it comes to McCarthy.

And, so far, the algebraic equation for McCarthy’s ascent to the speaker’s suite is hard to solve.