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.