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Republicans confront divisions as new Congress begins

Despite making last-minute concessions, Kevin McCarthy may be the first speaker candidate in 100 years to fail to be elected in the initial vote

The chamber of the House of Representatives is seen at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022.
The chamber of the House of Representatives is seen at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022.J. Scott Applewhite (AP)
Miguel Jiménez

The Republicans are still licking their wounds from the disappointing results of the November 8 midterm elections. The Republican Party failed to secure control of the Senate, while its majority in the House of Representatives is so small (222 to 213 seats) that it is not clear whether Kevin McCarthy, the Republican candidate to replace Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker, will secure enough support.

In odd-numbered years, the new session of Congress begins on January 3. House Republicans must elect a speaker, who is the third-highest authority after the president and vice president. Not since 1923 has a nominee for speaker failed to win in the first vote. If McCarthy fails to win initial support from his own colleagues, it would be a historic defeat.

Within the Republican Party, the main opposition to McCarthy’s nomination is the Freedom Caucus, which is made up of the most conservative members of the party. This group blames McCarthy – who has served as House Minority Leader since 2019 – for the midterm election results. The other side of the party largely blames former US president Donald Trump for the party’s failure to win control of the Senate and a more convincing majority in the House.

No alternative nominee to McCarthy has been named, but the divisions within Republican ranks are clear. A small group of lawmakers from the Freedom Caucus are known as the “Never Kevins,” while a broader group of centrist Congress members responded with buttons reading O.K., for Only Kevin.

Kevin McCarthy, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, in an image from May 2022.
Kevin McCarthy, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, in an image from May 2022. J. Scott Applewhite (AP)

Negotiations to win over support continued over New Year’s weekend, but it is not clear whether McCarthy’s concessions will be enough to appease the Never Kevins. What is clear is that even if he is elected House Speaker, he will be in a weakened position. In principle, McCarthy can only afford to have nine Republicans vote against him, but there are many more who have expressed doubts about his nomination.

In a bid to bolster support, McCarthy has promised to make several concessions if elected. He agreed to change House rules on the so-called motion to vacate, which allows lawmakers to initiate a vote to remove the speaker. Under the proposed changes, this motion will be able to be called if it is backed by just five House members. Hardliners, however, want a single House member to be able to initiate the vote.

McCarthy also promised to dissolve the January 6 House select Committee investigating the siege of the US Capitol in 2021, and to create a new committee to probe whether the federal government is being used as a political weapon. This would be a way for Republicans to attack the administration of President Joe Biden and question decisions, such as the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

The hardliners also want McCarthy to block initiatives that do not have support from a majority of Republicans. This is an attempt to prevent the Democrats, who control the Senate, from being able to pass laws that have the support of a handful of rebel House Republicans. But McCarthy has not yet addressed this demand.

The House Speaker nominee has, however, promised to ban remote voting and remote participation in House committees, to remove the metal detectors installed in the House chamber and ensure bills are posted for 72 hours before they’re put to a vote – a bid to end so-called express bills that lawmakers say undermine their rights as members of Congress.

But many House Republicans are still unconvinced. On January 1, a group of nine lawmakers published a letter which stated that McCarthy’s response to their demands were “insufficient.” “Nothing changes when nothing changes, and that must start from the top. Time to make the change or get out of the way,” said Scott Perry, a signee of the letter, in a message on Twitter. In the letter, the Republicans acknowledged that some progress had been made, but said it was “impossible late to address continued deficiencies.” According to the lawmakers, McCarthy’s candidacy for speaker represents the “continuation of past, and ongoing, Republican failures.”

The letter also points out that McCarthy did no address their demand that the speaker not get involved in open primaries. In the November 8 midterm elections, Trump and McCarthy supported different Republican candidates. And now, Trump’s supporters in the House want to prevent McCarthy from using his position as speaker to rally support for an alternative Republican presidential candidate.

If McCarthy is not elected in the first round, the vote will be repeated as many times as necessary. The longest speaker election took place in 1855, which took nearly two months and 133 votes. Between one vote and another, lawmakers can intervene to defend or criticize the candidate. This time can also be used to continue negotiations. The House can also change the rules that demand a nominee have an absolute majority, and instead allow the candidate with the most votes to be elected. This change, however, would need to be approved by a House majority, and may be risky: in an extreme case, the position could be won by a Democrat.

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