Conservatives sharpen their knives as McCarthy works to peel off skeptics

"Knives Out" isn't just playing on screen this week: Conservatives are digging in against Kevin McCarthy before the conclusion of a closed-door fight over consolidating the House GOP leader's power.

As House Republicans keep debating their rules for next year's majority, the Freedom Caucus — home to several members seeking to derail McCarthy's speakership bid — is pushing for institutional changes that they argue will restore power to rank-and-file members. Before that debate Wednesday, McCarthy allies likely will move to scrap or neuter some of the Freedom Caucus' dozen or so proposals.

Members of the pro-Trump group had clamored earlier this month to restore House members' ability to oust the speaker, though that effort got silenced by a counter-proposal from Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) that requires a majority of the conference to back any anti-speaker vote. Freedom Caucus members accused leadership of lining up opposition to their initial round of changes while postponing more controversial ideas until this week.

Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), who has a proposed rules change on the Wednesday agenda, said that “I don’t think the first [debate] was very productive" and that he hasn't decided if he'll back McCarthy for speaker on Jan. 3. Bishop added that he's looking to see if Wednesday's session will be “different in tenor than" the pre-Thanksgiving session, saying “I don’t think it has much utility if it’s not.”

Among the Freedom Caucus-backed demands is one from chair Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) that would reshape the House GOP Steering Committee, a leadership-driven group of lawmakers that decides most gavels and committee assignments. Perry's proposal would “relieve [the steering panel] of the responsibility to recommend committee chairs." And he's offering another that would require any amendment considered on the House floor to boast backing from “the majority of the Republican conference.”

The House GOP will also consider a proposal to ban earmarks that was offered by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.). They are under fierce pressure from conservatives and outside groups to adopt the proposal, but leadership allies are predicting that the conference will reject his bid and give McCarthy a valuable carrot in his search for the votes he needs to win the top gavel.

A growing list of House Republicans is threatening to not vote for him as speaker, with open opponents currently numbering five. Three hard nos have emerged from Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), while Reps. Bob Good (R-Va.) and Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) have sent strong signals they'll vote no.

And that makes the rules debate particularly prickly for McCarthy: He must balance the appearance of acquiescing to some conservative demands while also ensuring that whatever ground he gives doesn't undercut him if he does become speaker.

“If McCarthy wants to be Speaker, he should support the Freedom Caucus’ rules package,” said Cesar Ybarra, vice president of policy at the conservative outside group FreedomWorks. “McCarthy is not popular with the conservative base, so we understand why dozens of Republicans voted against him for Speaker earlier this month. This is a great opportunity for each member to have the ability to influence the legislative process, a practice that is currently stifled by leadership.”

Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus member, argued that internal party rules will be “really important” next Congress because of the party’s “narrow majority.”

“We're gonna have to agree on how to work together to be pretty effective,” Davidson said.

McCarthy critics are pledging that more skeptics will speak out over the next five weeks, creating a steady drip that highlights the fragility of his speaker bid as the floor vote nears.

Biggs, who unsuccessfully ran against McCarthy earlier this month for the GOP speaker nomination, predicted Monday that the California Republican is still down roughly 20 votes, describing that group as “pretty hard nos.”

“I was told by a number of people, who came after to me afterwards, who aren’t members of [the] Freedom Caucus, [that] ‘Hey, I voted for you’ or ‘I voted against Kevin,'" Biggs said on a Conservative Review podcast, adding that enough embers were lit to “prevent Kevin from getting the speakership.”

McCarthy can only afford to lose a handful of Republican votes in January, perhaps as few as five. And he’s vowing to take the fight all the way to the floor, even if it means multiple rounds of voting ballots.

By Biggs’ estimate, the California Republican has already flipped some GOP lawmakers who opposed him less than two weeks ago, though a faction of them were always viewed as less than committed opponents. Thirty-one House Republicans voted for Biggs during this month's internal vote to nominate McCarthy as the conference's speaker pick, while five others backed other write-in candidates and one Republican abstained.

More rank-and-file House Republicans say they aren’t sure what sort of deals McCarthy is offering in these meetings, some of which are taking place one-on-one with the GOP leader.

Conservatives were venting before Thanksgiving that many of their proposed changes got shot down because GOP leaders lined up opponents to speak against them during the first round of closed-door conference debate. This week isn't likely to play out much differently, which could fuel a new round of angst toward the GOP leader.

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), a McCarthy ally who lost a primary race to a GOP colleague after redistricting, argued that a rules fight happens every Congress and cautioned more junior lawmakers to ignore Freedom Caucus-backed ideas.

“There are certain members that will always advocate for rules changes, some of them the same rules changes that they've advocated for my entire career,” Davis said, adding that with time those members often realize they weren't "such good ideas.”

“That being said, Leader McCarthy has got to find a way to get the number of votes [to be speaker]," Davis added. "Which I think he will.”

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McCarthy’s next step on the GOP tightrope: Navigating concessions to conservatives

Now that Kevin McCarthy has won the House GOP's speakership nomination, his real work begins.

McCarthy's victory over internal critics on Tuesday marked the starting gun for a seven-week marathon. With his majority looking much thinner than many in both parties expected, he will need to persuade almost all of the 36 members who opposed him on Tuesday's secret ballot to back him for the gavel in the public floor vote on Jan. 3.

While most of the conference's anti-McCarthy votes went to Freedom Caucus challenger Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), five House Republicans wrote in a different name for speaker and one abstained for a total of 37 in opposition — drawing a map for the Californian's rocky path ahead to 218 votes.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) remarked on the effect of the chamber's narrow margins with a quip a Democrat might appreciate: "Everybody’s a Joe Manchin." Fitzpatrick helped nominate McCarthy on Tuesday, however, and stressed that the current minority leader “has earned the right” to be speaker.

The House GOP on Wednesday moves on to proposed conference rules, with debate set to continue after Thanksgiving. And McCarthy now has less room to maneuver than he might have anticipated. As he edges toward offering institutional concessions to the Freedom Caucus, the Trump-aligned group that helped block his ascent to the speakership in 2015, emboldened moderates are growing uncomfortable with what they perceive as back-door deals with the party’s hardliners.

More than 50 members of the Republican Main Street Partnership met on Wednesday morning to discuss their legislative priorities and how they plan to flex their muscle as the second-largest GOP group on Capitol Hill, a Republican familiar with the sitdown told POLITICO.

Meanwhile, some GOP lawmakers who backed McCarthy on Tuesday might end up siding with Freedom Caucus members on the rules concessions they're seeking. Among those requests: tools to undermine the GOP leader, including a restoration of the speaker-deposing move known as a "motion to vacate the chair"; and diluting the influence of McCarthy and his allies in doling out committee assignments. (The more influence McCarthy loses there, the fewer carrots he has to offer to his skeptics.)

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a onetime McCarthy opponent turned key ally, threw his support behind conservatives' proposed rules changes, calling them “good, common-sense things.”

On top of that, some Republicans walked into Wednesday's debate with a hangover from Tuesday. Four lawmakers, speaking on condition of anonymity, aired frustration after the leadership elections about what they described as a chaotic and poorly explained process of tallying votes.

Those private complaints about GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik's (N.Y.) management of the voting were exacerbated by the fact that inside the room, she read out votes for McCarthy and Biggs but did not mention that six members chose neither candidate. According to conference staff, however, internal rules state that only formally nominated leadership candidates — in this case, McCarthy and Biggs — have their tallies publicly announced.

Separately adding to the disarray, at least one GOP lawmaker mixed up planned votes for the first and second ballots in the highly competitive whip race, according to a senior Republican who was in the room. The lawmaker in question intended to choose Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) for the first ballot, but instead put Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.).

That one vote, had it been cast as intended, could have led to a different outcome in the whip battle — since Ferguson ended the first ballot one vote behind Emmer, eliminating him from the contest before the current National Republican Congressional Committee chair prevailed on the second ballot against Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.).

Now Republicans hope to move beyond the drama — though it's more likely they just start the second act — as McCarthy starts to try to lock down votes.

He can’t lose more than a handful of members. Though the House hasn’t formally been called yet, Republicans are expected to have a single-digit majority. And McCarthy has already lost two: Shortly before Wednesday’s conference meeting, Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) appeared to put himself firmly in the “no” column.

“[McCarthy] wants to maintain the status quo, which consolidates power into his hands and a small group of individuals he personally selects. We need a leader who can stand up to a Democrat-controlled Senate and President Biden, and unfortunately, that isn’t Kevin McCarthy,” Rosendale said.

He joins Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who is pushing Jordan as a potential speaker contender and cast doubt on McCarthy’s chances of ultimately claiming the gavel: “Kevin McCarthy couldn’t get 218 votes, he couldn’t get 200 votes. He couldn’t get 190 votes.”

Other McCarthy opponents also appeared unbowed, calling for challengers to the California Republican to step forward.

Biggs signaled that he won’t challenge McCarthy again — wondering “how many times can you have a target on your back” — but said that House Republicans “still have a lot of things to discuss internally," including the speakership.

Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who opposed McCarthy, said the current leader's failure to reach 218 internal votes “opens up the opportunity for anyone interested to let us know what their vision is to fight for the things that matter most to the American people.”

McCarthy's allies squashed or punted several conservative amendments on Wednesday afternoon, with largely non-controversial proposals — like backing the full reopening of the Capitol grounds — getting through on voice vote.

"I don't think those of us who were seeking to change how Congress operates, felt like the leadership was supportive of that. ... It was clear that the conference leadership had lined up opposition," Good said after the meeting.

And in a blow to members of the Freedom Caucus who wanted to make it easier to depose a speaker, House Republicans instead agreed to language requiring that a motion to vacate the chair have the support of a majority of the conference.

"There was an initiative for the last month or two saying we want to make it easier to vacate the chair and that just puts us on a house of cards," said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.).

Bacon added that where the conference ended up "gives us stability, predictability, and that's a good thing."

Nancy Vu contributed to this report.

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McCarthy, Emmer get House GOP nods during rift-ridden leadership elections

House GOP campaigns chief Tom Emmer on Tuesday prevailed in a fierce race for the No. 3 leadership post in a majority that Republicans are one midterm election victory from formally claiming, despite facing opposition over this month's narrower-than-expected victories.

The Minnesotan defeated Republican Study Committee Chair Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) on the second ballot after edging Chief Deputy Whip Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) by one vote during the first round of secret balloting in the battle to be majority whip next Congress. It caps off months of bitter jockeying for the House GOP’s highest open leadership role in years.

The whip victory represents a reward of sorts for Emmer, who headed the National Republican Congressional Committee for the past two cycles. Both saw Republicans gaining seats, but this year’s win was a massive disappointment for a party that projected winning an additional 20 to 30 seats. Despite some members arguing that the discouraging midterm threatened Emmer's prospects, he had already secured enough support from members who said he deserved credit for both cycles.

Emmer’s win also shatters a perceived conference curse: That NRCC chairs can’t move to higher roles in leadership, despite successful results at the ballot boxes. His victory at the closed conference meeting followed a 188-31 vote by House Republicans 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 convey 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 courts 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.

“We're going to elect a Republican speaker, and if that's tumultuous so be it," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). "But at the end of the day, Kevin McCarthy has the vast majority of members committed to him."

Yet 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.”

The election for House GOP conference chair ended in victory, 144-74, for New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who currently holds the spot and was widely favored to prevail against Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.). A Freedom Caucus member who challenged Stefanik from the right, Donalds didn't go down quietly — colleagues reported a feisty candidate forum on Monday.

Donalds 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.

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, leaving Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) uncontested. And Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) faced no competition in his bid to jump 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 building 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 problems with the center of the conference, where governing-minded members can also leverage a razor-thin majority and are emphasizing the importance of bipartisanship.

“I believe this is rather a prime moment for the Problem Solvers and Main Street GOP to make an important impact,” 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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