WASHINGTON — Conservative lawmakers sent a strong message to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy on Monday, telling him he doesn't have the votes to be the next speaker.
The warning shot came just one day before McCarthy heads into a closed-door election seeking to become his party’s nominee for speaker of the House starting in January.
The California Republican is expected to easily surpass the simple majority needed to win the nomination, but members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus are planning to put up a symbolic challenger to make clear that McCarthy can’t reach the magic number needed — 218 votes — in the formal floor vote when the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3.
“Nobody has 218,” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., told reporters before conservatives met to discuss rules changes they want from GOP leadership. “And somebody is going to run tomorrow” against McCarthy, he added.
It turns out that somebody is Biggs himself. The former Freedom Caucus chairman confirmed Monday night that he will be challenging McCarthy for the top job.
"It’s going to be tough. Kevin has raised a lot of money and done a lot of things, but this is not just about Kevin," Biggs said on Newsmax. "I think it’s about an institutional direction and trajectory. And that’s where we’re going to see if we have enough people who agree we need to change the trajectory of this place."
Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., who is opposing McCarthy for speaker, said once conservatives demonstrate that McCarthy can't secure 218 votes, a number of other Republicans will be interested in jumping into the race for speaker.
While several leading conservatives, including Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, have already endorsed McCarthy, other conservatives are demanding that he agree to a number of proposed rule changes before they get on board with his bid for speaker.
Among the changes they want: Bring back a rule making it easier to force a vote on ousting a speaker. It’s highly unlikely McCarthy would cede that power to the Freedom Caucus, though he could back smaller proposals.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., who has been negotiating with McCarthy, said he spoke to him on Monday and that the “conversation went well.”
Perry wouldn’t comment on whether he would back a challenger to McCarthy, though it’s clear that the Freedom Caucus is in the driver’s seat heading into Tuesday's leadership elections.
At this point last week, McCarthy and his team were hoping for a “red wave” in the midterms that would hand Republicans a big majority and give the GOP leader enough of a buffer so that he could win the speaker's gavel and still afford to lose some support from conservatives in the House.
Instead, Republicans greatly underperformed and likely will end up with a razor-thin majority. NBC News has not yet projected which party controls the House, though its Decision Desk estimates that Republicans will end up with 220 seats and Democrats with 215, with a margin of error of plus or minus four seats.
With that a margin that narrow, just a handful of conservatives could prevent McCarthy from becoming speaker on Jan. 3 — a scenario that could throw the GOP Conference and the House into chaos at the onset of the new Congress.
If he passes his first test on Tuesday — winning his party’s nomination as expected — McCarthy will have seven weeks to try to win over his far-right detractors.
“We won the majority, wasn’t that our goal?” McCarthy told reporters heading into Monday’s speaker candidate forum. Asked if he can secure 218 votes, McCarthy stated the obvious: “I couldn’t be speaker if I couldn’t.”
One thing McCarthy has going for him is an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, who is close to the Freedom Caucus and has enormous sway with the conservative base. Jordan, the founding chairman of the caucus who unsuccessfully challenged McCarthy for minority leader in 2018, also is backing McCarthy.
McCarthy also has the support of Greene, a conservative favorite. She’s warning her fellow conservatives that running a challenger against McCarthy would be “very risky” and a “bad strategy,” arguing that doing so could lead to a situation where Democrats cut a deal with a handful of anti-Trump Republicans to elect Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming as speaker, even though she lost her re-election bid. Cheney led a group of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Capitol riot and has served as vice chair of the special committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.
"I've been urging my colleagues in House Freedom Caucus that it's extremely important for us to unify and to support Kevin McCarthy with this thin majority," Greene said Monday evening, the second time that day she had made that case on Steve Bannon’s podcast “War Room."
"We're at risk of allowing the Democrats to be able to elect the speaker of the House even if we have the majority," Greene added, noting that 20 of the 35 Republicans who voted to form the Jan. 6 committee will be back in Congress next year.
Greene has reason to worry about a scenario where a moderate Republican is potentially the speaker.
Moderate GOP Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska told NBC News on Monday night that if the GOP Conference can't agree on electing McCarthy or any other Republican as speaker on the House floor, then he would be willing to work with Democrats to elect a moderate Republican for the top post.
"I will support Kevin McCarthy, but if we do get to that point, I do want the country to work and we need to govern. We can't sit neutral; we can't have total gridlock for two years," Bacon said in an interview just off the House floor.
Pressed again that he would team up with Democrats, Bacon replied: "Yes, but that's assuming we can't get to 218 beforehand." However, he added that a Speaker Liz Cheney "will never happen."
"On the GOP side, there will be zero stomach for [Cheney]," Bacon said. "I actually like Liz ... but it wouldn't happen."
On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that over the weekend McCarthy allies had reached out to moderate Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas to see if he would be willing to switch parties and caucus with Republicans — a sign that McCarthy might need Democratic support to shore up his speaker bid.
But McCarthy spokesman Mark Bednar denied the report, saying the GOP leader would be elected speaker by current and newly elected Republicans. A Cuellar spokesman said the congressman is a “lifelong Democrat and will remain a Democrat. Period.”
Inside the candidates forum on Monday, McCarthy was pressed by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a frequent McCarthy critic, on whether he would work with Democrats to secure 218 votes for speaker. McCarthy pledged to Gaetz and other members that he would not.
“He made the assurance he would neither solicit nor accept votes from Democrats,” Gaetz told NBC News, “which functionally means any five Republicans have a veto over a Republican choice for speaker. And that’s not just me and my four friends, that’s also people who are more moderate in our caucus, and I think that has to be respected on all ends of the spectrum.”
Later on Bannon’s “War Room,” Gaetz mocked Greene — one of his closest friends and allies — for trusting McCarthy. Gaetz referred to a conspiracy theory Greene previously promoted that blamed wildfires in California on Jewish space lasers.
“Whatever Kevin has promised Marjorie Taylor Greene, I guarantee you this: At the first opportunity, he will zap her faster than you can say Jewish space laser,” Gaetz said.