WASHINGTON – Divided House Republicans are meeting to vote on a new speaker as the front-runner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, faces a fresh challenge from the hard-line conservatives who forced outgoing Speaker John Boehner to resign.
Thursday’s closed-door, secret-ballot election will produce a GOP nominee for speaker, but it will not be the final word. That won’t come until Oct. 29, when the full House votes in open session for speaker.
Many of the conservatives who oppose Boehner are eager to deny McCarthy, the outgoing speaker’s ally and deputy, the chance to advance. Members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus announced Wednesday they would be backing a different candidate, GOP Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, a little-known longshot who ran against Boehner at the beginning of this year but got only 12 votes.
Webster, who served as speaker of the House in Florida, is unlikely to deny McCarthy a majority vote in Thursday’s session. But if the several-dozen Freedom Caucus members stick together on the House floor later this month, they could prevent McCarthy from getting the 218 votes he’d need to prevail. That would send the House into uncertain territory – and perhaps increase the Freedom Caucus’ leverage to exact concessions as members demand confrontations with President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats on issues of spending and debt.
“The marginalizing of conservatives that has happened over the past nine months is just not going to be tolerated anymore,” said Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.
In an effort to help McCarthy secure enough backing to end the infighting, former Vice President Dick Cheney issued an endorsement Wednesday night in which he called McCarthy “a good man and a strong leader.”
“As a man of the House and a former member of the House leadership, I know that Kevin McCarthy is the person we need as speaker in these dangerous and important times,” said Cheney, who represented Wyoming in the House for 12 years.
McCarthy’s challenge heading into Thursday’s vote is to get a big vote total that would give him a commanding position over the next several weeks of maneuvering leading up to Oct. 29. The Freedom Caucus decision was a blow to that goal. There was little expectation that the group would back McCarthy – but much speculation that the sometimes disorganized hard-liners would be unable to rally around any of his opponents.
Now House Republicans face three more weeks of the intrigue, infighting and disarray that have consumed them in the two weeks since Boehner announced he would be resigning at the end of October. And many of the more establishment-aligned lawmakers are voicing fears about chaos on Oct. 29 if McCarthy can’t get 218 votes.
It hasn’t happened in decades, but in years past speaker elections have required multiple ballots before any candidate prevailed. Democrats will vote for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the floor, so McCarthy would be able to lose only 29 votes to emerge the winner. The Freedom Caucus is thought to command around 30-some votes.
“The concerns are that McCarthy wins and then you go the floor and all the Democrats vote for Pelosi and we have a group that doesn’t vote for McCarthy and then it’s a, uh, trying to think of the diplomatic term to use – turmoil,” said Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio. “I don’t know what the heck’s going to happen. Because I don’t see a logical ending.”