McCarthy wins GOP vote for Speakership handily over right-wing challenge

House Republicans nominated Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) to be Speaker in a closed-door conference meeting on Tuesday after he faced a last-minute protest challenge from Rep. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), a former chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

McCarthy won easily, 188 to 31, in the internal conference meeting. But in the eyes of Biggs and his supporters, the goal was merely to demonstrate that McCarthy lacks the support to seize the gavel when the full House meets to choose the Speaker early next year.

The 31 votes opposing McCarthy easily met that threshold, raising immediate questions about how McCarthy — who had failed to ascend to Speaker in 2015 — will make up the difference between now and then. 

The secret-ballot House Republican Conference vote is just the first step for McCarthy to take hold of the gavel. He must win a majority in a public vote on the House floor — at least 218 votes, assuming a fully sworn-in House — on the first day of the next Congress on Jan. 3.

Tuesday’s vote came as the final breakdown of House control remains unknown, with around a dozen races undecided and election projections putting Republicans just one vote shy of securing the majority.

The exact size of the slimmer-than-expected majority will have major implications for the rest of McCarthy’s path to the gavel, since he will be able to spare only a handful of defectors on the House floor. Rules changes and committee assignments may be among the bargaining chips McCarthy uses to woo opponents back to his side before Jan. 3. 

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a Freedom Caucus member who nominated Biggs for Speaker during the conference meeting on Tuesday, said that his position on McCarthy’s chances at becoming Speaker remained unchanged after Tuesday’s nomination.

“No one has 218 (or close, as needed). We have to sit down and establish the fundamental changes needed,” Roy said in a statement.

In a press conference, McCarthy said he thinks he will have the votes by January to become Speaker, pointing out that former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) similarly fell short of 218 votes in their internal party nominations before later securing the Speakership on the House floor. But he acknowledged it could be tough.

"Look, we have our work cut out for us. We've got to have a small majority. We've got to listen to everybody in our conference," McCarthy said.

But Biggs said on former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon’s “War Room” podcast on Tuesday that there are a “significant number of hard noes” for McCarthy in the House GOP.

The Freedom Caucus is pushing for changes to internal conference rules that, on the whole, would chip away at leadership’s power and give more to individual members — a major dynamic at play in Biggs’s challenge to McCarthy. 

One of those requests is restoring any member’s ability to make a motion to vacate the chair, which would force a recall vote on the Speaker. Then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Freedom Caucus co-founder, made the motion in 2015, contributing to a rebellion that ended in former GOP Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) resigning from Congress later that year.

McCarthy is opposed to the change, arguing that it would give too much power to Democratic members.

The House GOP conference was set to vote on rules on Wednesday, much to the frustration of Freedom Caucus members, who requested that a vote on the rules happen before leadership elections.

But in what may be a sign of McCarthy being willing to negotiate more on rules, he announced on Tuesday that some rules changes would be considered on Wednesday and others considered after Thanksgiving, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a 36-year House veteran, acknowledged that McCarthy has his work cut out for him.

"Nothing's easy," said Upton, who's retiring at the end of this term. "He's going to work hard, I'm sure."

Upton said the dynamics remind him of the race to replace Boehner in 2015, when conservative opposition forced McCarthy to drop out of the contest. But with one major difference.

"Unlike before when, in essence, Kevin threw in the towel, he's not going to do it this time," Upton said. "They had an easy path before when Kevin backed off. He's not backing off this time."

Both supporters and opponents of McCarthy acknowledged a major difference between the internal nomination vote and the Jan. 3 vote that could improve McCarthy’s level of support: On the House floor, votes will be public and not secret — likely influencing those who do not want to upset McCarthy to vote for him.

Biggs launched a late challenge to McCarthy on Monday night and did not make a presentation beforehand at a House GOP leadership candidate forum, during which McCarthy got standing ovations.

“We have a new paradigm here, and I think the country wants a different direction from the House of Representatives,” Biggs said on Newsmax Monday night. He has previously expressed disappointment with McCarthy downplaying the prospects of impeachment for Biden administration officials like Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Reps. Michael Cloud (Texas) and Ralph Norman (S.C.) seconded Roy’s nomination of Biggs in the conference meeting on Tuesday, according to a source in the room. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (N.D.) was among those who gave a speech in support of McCarthy.

Not all members of the Freedom Caucus agree with the tactic of challenging McCarthy, however.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), once a doubter of McCarthy’s ability to become Speaker, has become one of his most vocal supporters for the post — as she hopes to secure favorable committee assignments in the next Congress. A slim majority, she fears, could cause moderate Republicans to join Democrats and elect a compromise moderate candidate.

“We have to elect Kevin McCarthy,” Greene told reporters Monday. “I can’t support a challenge that will allow the Democrats to elect their own Speaker by pulling some of ours.”

The Speakership has been a longtime goal for McCarthy, who has been active in Republican politics since his young adulthood.

“Can I be Speaker?” McCarthy said in jest to a member presiding over the House at one point during an overnight, record-breaking speech on the House floor last year, when he delayed passage of a major Democratic tax, climate and spending bill.

After rising to minority leader in the California State Assembly, the Bakersfield, Calif., Republican was elected to the U.S. House in 2006, eventually rising through the leadership ranks from chief deputy whip to whip to majority leader.

But Biggs’s challenge is the latest chapter in the saga of McCarthy battling and wooing the House GOP’s right flank. 

First came the conservative opposition that sank his 2015 Speakership bid, and then in 2018, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), another member of the House Freedom Caucus, challenged him in the race for GOP leader.

But as the top House Republican for the last four years, McCarthy has given the right flank a seat at the table, unlike some of his leadership predecessors. 

Jordan is set to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and is fully supporting McCarthy. Greene was invited to participate in McCarthy’s “Commitment to America” policy platform rollout in September.

And perhaps most notably, McCarthy quickly mended his relationship with former President Trump after saying that Trump bore responsibility for the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, traveling to Mar-a-Lago to meet with him weeks later.

Trump threw his support behind McCarthy for Speaker before last week’s elections. McCarthy has not endorsed the former president running for a third time in 2024, which Trump is expected to announce Tuesday night.

Mike Lillis contributed.

Updated 6:10 p.m.

Klain: White House ready for possible GOP investigations

White House chief of staff Ron Klain said the Biden administration is ready for any potential investigations that Republicans launch if the GOP retakes the House majority.

Klain told CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash on Wednesday that Republicans faded at the end of the midterm election campaign cycle because they were talking more about “what they were going to do to the president’s family” than what they could do for people. 

Some Republicans have indicated that they plan to launch investigations into a variety of topics if they regain the majority, including the business dealings of President Biden’s son Hunter Biden and the situation on the southern border. 

Some far-right Republican candidates have said they support impeaching Biden or members of his administration over such issues. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has downplayed the prospect of launching impeachment proceedings. 

But with Republicans likely to win a narrower majority in the House than originally expected, far-right members of Congress who support impeachment could have more leverage over McCarthy, who would need their votes in his quest to become House Speaker.

Biden said at a press conference on Wednesday that the idea of Republicans launching their investigations and impeachment probes is “almost comedy.” 

“Look, I can’t control what they’re going to do. All I can do is continue to try to make life better for American people,” he said. 

Klain said people want to see Congress work to bring prices down, fight the COVID-19 pandemic and address economic challenges, not “political games.” 

He said Biden gave Democratic candidates accomplishments to run on, which is why Democratic incumbents largely succeeded in the midterm elections. He said they were able to run on job creation, infrastructure, semiconductor manufacturing and fighting COVID-19. 

Republicans had hoped to make strong gains in both chambers of Congress, but the GOP appears set to likely win a narrow majority in the House, while control of the Senate is uncertain.

How a GOP Congress could try to impeach a Biden Cabinet member

Republicans have vowed to use the full power of the House of Representatives if they take control in November, threatening everything from shutting down investigations into the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol to impeaching President Biden and his cabinet secretaries.

While Republicans are all but certain to terminate the select committee on the Jan. 6 attack, it's less clear whether they'll risk the political uncertainties of an impeachment trial.

But if they take the plunge, their sights will be on Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

In a letter to Mayorkas last week, GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) explicitly threatened impeachment over the secretary's "gross dereliction of duty" in managing the U.S.-Mexico border.

That missive followed an April letter led by the Republican Study Committee and signed by 133 House Republicans that avoided explicitly calling for impeachment, but laid out the case for Republicans to raise immigration policy differences to the level of impeachable offenses.

"Your actions have willingly endangered American citizens and undermined the rule of law and our nation's sovereignty. Your failure to secure the border and enforce the laws passed by Congress raises grave questions about your suitability for office," wrote the lawmakers.

The Constitution allows for impeachment of the president and other “civil officers” for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

But it's unclear what is meant by "high crimes and misdemeanors," and impeachment is understood to be an essentially political act – a Senate would need very little substantial cause to convict an official impeached by the House.

"With my political scientist hat on, I'd say what counts as a high crime or misdemeanor is what you can get two thirds of the Senate to vote to convict on. And that in itself, it's not a substantive standard. It's a procedural one," said Josh Chafetz, a professor of law at Georgetown University.

But Chafetz added that's a "very high bar," since it would require significant buy-in from the president's party.

And while technically there are no limits – other than whip counts in both chambers – to what behaviors Congress can interpret as "high crimes and misdemeanors," precedent does set some boundaries.

“The Constitution provides for impeachment in the case of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors — not for political revenge or partisan retribution," said David Rapallo, director of the Federal Legislation Clinic at Georgetown Law.

That reading still leaves space for debate as to what constitutes grounds for conviction under impeachment.

"There's been a debate about whether there must be a statutory code violation of a crime to impeach. The general view is that it doesn't necessarily have to be a criminal act under the statutory code, but rather an abuse of power in some way,” said Rapallo.

The Republican case against Mayorkas lies largely on high migrant apprehension and drug interdiction numbers at the southwest border.

U.S. officials encountered 2,150,639 immigrants entering the country without prior authorization in the first 11 months of fiscal 2022, breaking the record for encounters in a year.

And fentanyl seizures continue to rise, as Mexican drug cartels abandon other drugs for the cheaper-to-produce synthetic opioid.

If the GOP takes control of the House, they will almost certainly bring down the hammer on Mayorkas through congressional oversight, but Republicans seem eager to raise the specter of impeachment.

In their letter, Graham and Cruz accuse Mayorkas of aggravating conditions on the border, in part by attempting to end policies put in place under the Trump administration, namely construction of the border wall; the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as "Remain in Mexico"; and Title 42, a policy to quickly expel foreign nationals under the guise of pandemic protections.

While the Department of Homeland Security halted border wall construction shortly after Biden took office, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials announced a plan to return to construction sites in the Sonoran Desert to resume construction of some segments of the wall.

But Graham and Cruz zeroed in on Mayorkas' attempts to end MPP, which are tangled up in the courts.

"Your expedited and repeated rejection of President Trump's successful Migrant Protection Protocols … demonstrates your willingness to embrace an open-borders agenda that undermines America's safety," they wrote. 

"You have been specifically instructed by the court to implement the protocol in good faith or take new agency action that complied with the law. You have done neither."

While the Biden administration was originally directed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to continue MPP's implementation "in good faith," the case was returned to a lower court after the Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration's plans to end the policy.

A lower court lifted the order to continue implementing MPP and DHS has been winding the program down.

"In short, MPP is over for now, although there is confusion surrounding its ending," reads a post on MPP's current state of affairs on the American Immigration Lawyers Association blog.

That distinction could blunt the GOP senators' call for impeachment.

"The traditional story we tell about impeachment in America is that it doesn't apply to just bad policy. It's not about maladministration, but rather, it's about malfeasance or nonfeasance," said Chafetz.

And historical precedent is on cabinet members' side when it comes to impeachment.

The only cabinet member ever impeached was President Grant's secretary of war, William Belknap, who was accused of taking kickbacks from a contractor he appointed to run the trader post in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

While most historians agree the accusations against Belknap were credible, he avoided conviction in his 1876 impeachment trial because he resigned on the same day he was impeached.

Like President Nixon nearly a century later, Belknap chose to resign rather than face almost certain conviction in the Senate, although the House did pass Belknap's articles of impeachment.

“If it were something like Richard Nixon — that era where his own party was telling him what was coming, and it would be better for him to resign than go through that process — he chose to resign, and after that occurred, they didn't go forward,” said Rapallo.

The precedent that being out of office obviates an impeachment conviction was reinforced in 2021, when Trump was acquitted in his second impeachment trial after leaving office.

Because of that precedent, any official facing probable impeachment conviction is more likely to resign than to become the first executive officer convicted by the Senate.

"​​​​I just don't see any way they would get to 67 [Senate votes] based on what we've seen now," said Chafetz.

"Now, again, if it turns out tomorrow that some member of the cabinet has a freezer full of cash that they got from a foreign government, sure. But of course in that situation, they'd almost certainly resign or be fired," he added.

Conversely, Biden and his cabinet are unlikely to yield in an impeachment trial they can win, even if the proceedings disrupt an official's duties.

"If you're Biden, it's a short term-long term trade off, because maybe the department can get a move on with business, but the Republicans have successfully claimed a scalp and what's to prevent them from going after the next cabinet official?" said Chafetz.

And if Republicans do take the House, their leadership ranks will have their hands full controlling an ideological and outspoken caucus.

While at least two separate articles of impeachment have been filed against Biden by Republican lawmakers in the current Congress, GOP leadership has not invested political capital in those bills.

Any GOP impeachment of Biden risks being seen as a tit-for-tat over the two Democratic impeachments of Trump, and that protection could extend to cabinet secretaries.

“The Constitution doesn't provide for impeaching a cabinet secretary because you think impeaching the president is too much politically,” said Rapallo.

And dragging immigration into a constitutional controversy could backfire for Republicans.

“It's well known that the Republicans were close to agreeing on legislation related to immigration, but changed their minds and haven't been interested in solving the problem since then,” said Rapallo.

“So on one hand, to walk away from the effort to legislate, and then on the other, to go after the cabinet secretary who's charged with implementing the laws is a little rich, I would say.”  

Elise Stefanik predicts at least 40 House GOP women next year

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) is focusing on women candidates to boost her party's efforts to retake control of the House, predicting that the number of Republican women in the House will jump next year.

“We are building towards 50,” Stefanik said in a briefing Wednesday about the successes of her Elevate PAC, or E-PAC, that endorses female candidates, predicting that the number of House GOP women will “blow past 40 this cycle.”

The number of Republican women in the House dwindled to just 13 after the 2018 election. But that number more than doubled after the 2020 election, when 32 female Republican representatives won seats, plus two nonvoting delegates. In that cycle, 11 of the 15 seats that Republicans flipped were E-PAC endorsed candidates.

Democrats have 91 women in their House caucus, nearly three times as many as the GOP.

This cycle, Stefanik’s E-PAC has 23 endorsed candidates who are running in open races or challenging a Democratic incumbent. Those range from women in safe Republican seats, like Harriet Hageman, who defeated Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) in a primary last month, to those seeking seats that will be harder for Republicans to win.

While some of the endorsees had broad support from outside Republicans in primaries, others had to put up more of a fight. Karoline Leavitt, a former staff member in the White House press office under former President Trump and then in Stefanik’s congressional office, recently defeated Matt Mowers in a New Hampshire primary race, despite a PAC aligned with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) spending more than $1.5 million in support of Mowers.

“Congresswoman Stefanik was instrumental in my decision to run. And in that early support, it really helped propel us in our primary to be victorious,” Leavitt said.

Stefanik announced last week that she will seek another term as House Republican Conference chairwoman, shutting down months of speculation that she might join the field of three candidates for House majority whip if the House flips to Republican control next year.

But her focus on E-PAC shows that she still has big ambitions, even if she would slide down from the third- to fourth-ranking House Republican in a majority. 

Stefanik said experience helping lead Trump’s defense during his first impeachment, which shot up her national profile, helped her build up a national donor list. That helps her boost the E-PAC candidates — the group says it has helped raise more $1 million directly to GOP women candidates this cycle.

Stefanik’s post-2018 election decision to step back from a role at the National Republican Congressional Committee in order to try to elevate female candidates in primaries was met with some pushback at the time. She defiantly responded that she “wasn’t asking for permission.”

But now, Stefanik says, she has strong support for her cause from her male colleagues, including McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). 

It is not just financial support that E-PAC brings. Stefanik lamented that while Democratic women get “outsized coverage in the media” and “magazine covers,” Republican women don’t get the same.

“They deserve glossy magazines as well,” Stefanik said, adding that E-PAC has booked more than 100 interviews for its candidates.

Increasing the number of Republican women in the House GOP, Stefanik noted, does not necessarily mean that the conference will move in any particular ideological direction. Women are prominent in both the conservative House Freedom Caucus and the more moderate Republican Governance Group.

As the number of women in the conference has grown, Stefanik said they are having “a significant impact” on “both policymaking and policy proposals.”

Republican women have been outspoken on education issues, child care and the baby formula shortage, she said. And those GOP members are also hoping to see more Republican women voices next year.

“Getting more women in our Republican conference is critically important, and Elise is leading the way to make that happen. I know I’m here in Congress because of fellow GOP women like Elise who backed me from day one,” Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.), who was elected to Congress in 2020, said in a statement.

“The road to take back the House has a lot of Republican women on it.”