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McCarthy gets House GOP's nod during rift-ridden leadership elections

McCarthy gets House GOP's nod during rift-ridden leadership elections

House Republicans met on Tuesday to tap the leaders of the majority they're one vote from officially claiming, their most crucial decisions before the full chamber picks its speaker on Jan. 3.

In a closed conference meeting with secret ballots, Republicans voted 188-31 to nominate GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy for speaker over challenger Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), whose candidacy was pushed by the Donald Trump-aligned House Freedom Caucus.

The win, met with raucous applause according to five people in the room, came as hardliners sought to make the point that their bloc of McCarthy skeptics is large enough to keep the GOP leader from the 218 votes he needs to become speaker come Jan. 3. And while the nomination marked a success for the California Republican, his trouble is far from over as he works to win over the necessary votes before the start of the new Congress — with Freedom Caucus members still demanding concessions that would weaken his hold on the conference.

“That's kind of what we expected," one McCarthy backer said after the vote, speaking about internal dynamics on condition of anonymity. "I think it shows that the Freedom Caucus is split, so it's not a unified opposition to Kevin."

Following McCarthy's nomination, the conference was set to vote for the rest of its leadership team: majority leader, whip, conference chair, House GOP campaigns chief and more.

There are already concerns among Republicans across the ideological spectrum that failing to rally around the right leaders will leave them further weakened against a stronger-than-expected House Democratic minority and a Democratic Senate. Freedom Caucus members like Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), who is declining to say if he would back McCarthy, said the next GOP speaker will have to reflect a conference that has moved to the right.

“The Speaker of the House, whomever he or she is, will be required to recognize the center of gravity of the conference itself. And the Freedom Caucus has moved that center of gravity to the right,” Higgins said, criticizing past Speaker Paul Ryan for cutting bipartisan deals that were not “reflective of the deepest core principles of the American people.”

On the other side, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — a McCarthy headache in the past — whipped members to support the California Republican, arguing that dragged-out divisions could mean a Democratic candidate for speaker could pull an upset.

“If we don’t unify behind Kevin McCarthy, we’re opening up the door for the Democrats to be able to recruit some of our Republicans,” Greene said, adding that there was a “spirited discussion” with “some of my closest allies and I’ve been talking to them a lot.”

Meanwhile, the race for House majority whip remains the most competitive, with Reps. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) all aggressively pursuing the No. 3 role after months of not-so-subtle jockeying.

Multiple Republicans have started to project that Banks and Ferguson, the deputy whip, now have an edge after the lackluster midterm results. Some of the conference has directed that frustration towards Emmer, who led House Republicans’ campaign arm the past two cycles. Emmer has publicly and privately defended his record by pointing out that the party gained seats over that period, even if November’s results were lower than expected.

The conference chair race appears more locked up between New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who currently holds the spot, and Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.). But while House Republicans have mostly signaled they’ll reelect Stefanik, Donalds isn’t going down quietly — colleagues reported a feisty candidate forum on Monday.

Donalds, a House Freedom Caucus member who is challenging Stefanik from the right, sought to distinguish himself from the moderate-turned-MAGA New York Republican, touting his fundraising as well as his appeal to different voters as one of the two current Black House Republicans. His performance was met with mixed reviews, with some lawmakers saying he projected strength and others arguing he came off too aggressive.

“I think it’s going to be pretty close — we’ll see what happens. That’s just my feel,” Donalds said, while declining to share specifics about his whip count.

Stefanik, the top-ranked woman in elected congressional GOP leadership, has silenced many conservatives who were critical of her past moderate voting record. Her colleagues have credited her for alleviating the headaches that came with Trump-critic Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).

During the candidate forum, Stefanik fielded a question from Freedom Caucus member Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) about her pledge to stay in the position for only one term, telling the room of GOP lawmakers that she initially wanted to seek a committee gavel before colleagues encouraged her to run for a second term. It’s a signal that Stefanik’s team is looking to rewrite the narrative on that front, as her office has denied the one-term pledge.

The once-competitive race to lead the GOP campaign arm next cycle is now uncontested. Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) conceded on Monday, as POLITICO first reported, leaving Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) now the sole member running. And Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) faces no competition in his bid to jump from minority whip to majority leader.

McCarthy faces a tougher path, however, as his quest for the House gavel is just getting started. While he's expected to win the party nomination Tuesday, he still needs to find a path to 218 floor votes by the beginning of January. Though Biggs challenged McCarthy Tuesday, the Freedom Caucus put him forward as a symbolic alternative meant to demonstrate the Californian’s lack of unified support.

Instead, Freedom Caucus members view the next seven weeks as critical time to force McCarthy to the negotiating table or keep buiding support for a consensus challenger. The group is pushing for a laundry list of changes to rules that govern both the conference and the full House, including strengthening the ability to oust a speaker and greater representation on an internal panel that doles out committee posts.

“We just view it as another step in the process to figure out where we are going. … No one has 218 or a sufficient number, and then the question is what are we going to do to get there,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) about what comes after Tuesday.

At least one Republican is already vowing to vote against McCarthy in January: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who has floated electing Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) as an alternative. Depending on how narrow the GOP majority ends up, McCarthy can only afford to lose a handful of members in the full floor vote.

But any shift by McCarthy toward the Freedom Caucus is likely to cause headaches from the center of the conference, where governing-minded members can also leverage a razor-thin majority and are emphasizing the importance of bipartisan deals.

“I believe this is rather a prime moment for the Problem Solvers and Main Street GOP to make an important impact. It’s time we flex our muscles,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a moderate leader in the conference. “If we work in [a] bipartisan manner, we can hit singles and America wins.”

Some hardliners are taking the temperature of moderate Republicans on the speakership as centrists increasingly feel left out of the McCarthy-Freedom Caucus negotiations. One Republican familiar with the matter said Jordan and Gaetz have started talks with moderate Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), the head of the Republican Governance Group.

Some hypothesized that moderates coming together could be a threat to McCarthy’s bid, as they might team up with Democrats. Bacon shot down that idea.

“I believe we will get to 218 and that it will be Kevin,” the Nebraskan said.

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