Kevin's dilemma: Even if McCarthy finally wins the speakership, it won't be much fun

Kevin McCarthy suffered humiliation to get here. But he might not win the prize, and it's not worth winning

By Heather Digby Parton


Published December 16, 2022 9:55AM (EST)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., addresses the media after a meeting about avoiding a railroad worker strike with President Joe Biden at the White House on Tuesday, November 29, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., addresses the media after a meeting about avoiding a railroad worker strike with President Joe Biden at the White House on Tuesday, November 29, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Kevin McCarthy is having a very rough time. Like the rest of the Republican Party, he had anticipated a big win in November that would have given the GOP a comfortable majority in the House (and probably control of the Senate as well) which would have swept him into the speaker's office in January. But in the event, Republicans barely squeaked out a win in the House (as well as losing a seat in the Senate). That gives tremendous leverage to a handful of Republican malcontents, showboaters and fringe fanatics — and they determined to make McCarthy's life miserable.

This is the second time this seemingly mild-mannered glad-hander from one of California's few remaining deep-red districts has been in line for the speaker's gavel, and just like the last time he's having trouble closing the deal. You'll recall that back in 2015, McCarthy was the presumptive heir to Speaker John Boehner — who was essentially forced out by the right-wing fringe — but shot off his mouth in spectacularly dumb fashion, earning the ire of the House Freedom Caucus. That was when the party persuaded the supposedly reluctant Paul Ryan to step in, leading to the premature end of his political career. This time around McCarthy has pissed off some members of the Freedom Caucus once again, including its current chairman, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona — who says he too will run for the speakership — and at the moment he just doesn't seem to have the votes. So what happens now?  

Here's what we know: When the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3, the full House of Representatives will hold an election for speaker of the House. The winner must get a majority of all those who are present and do not abstain (an important detail, and that does happen.) Most or all Democrats will vote for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the party's newly anointed House leader, although a few may vote for someone else for eccentric reasons. None of them will vote for Kevin McCarthy, however, barring some bizarre and unlikely backroom deal. Bear in mind that if all Democrats are present and voting, McCarthy can afford to lose only five votes.

Curiously enough, outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi faced exactly the same margin when the current Congress convened in 2021 and had to navigate a narrow path to ensure her re-election. But she is a much more skilled legislator than McCarthy and there was never any serious doubt that she would pull it off. McCarthy's skills are weaker, to put it mildly, but in fairness he is faced with a much more difficult challenge: His party is in total chaos. As the New York Times reports:

The past week has brought a few developments — many of them baffling even to Capitol Hill insiders. On Friday, seven conservative hard-liners issued a lengthy list of demands to the would-be speaker, mostly involving obscure procedural rules. On Tuesday, a group of nearly 50 moderates aligned with McCarthy said they would oppose some of those ideas. Then on Wednesday, news broke that a different group of five anti-McCarthy members led by Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona had made a pact to vote as a bloc, one way or another. If they stick together, those five are enough to deny McCarthy his gavel, and it is not clear how he gets them to yes. But it's also not clear that Republicans have another viable option. To reinforce that point, McCarthy's allies have begun distributing buttons saying "O.K." — as in "Only Kevin.

The reality is that while Biggs may be too far out on the fringe to be a real threat, there is a viable option: McCarthy's right hand man, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Every single member of the Republican caucus voted for Scalise as majority whip while 36 members declined to vote for McCarthy as party leader. That was a secret ballot so we don't know for sure which members didn't vote for McCarthy — and he doesn't know either. If McCarthy can't pull together a majority on Jan. 3, Scalise would be the logical consensus candidate, although Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina has also been mentioned as an alternative.

The worst-case scenario for McCarthy would that Republicans can't get their act together at all and the Democrats offer to step in and rescue him — for a price, perhaps a power-sharing or concessions on committee membership. That is highly unlikely in this climate of extreme partisan division, but the way things are going, Democratic leaders had better be prepared for the possibility.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Despite all this drama, the smart money is still on McCarthy. He has secured the support of some far-right members, including the immensely influential Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and has been cutting deals with anyone who wants one. The main sticking point seems to be the insistence from crazytown on bringing back the provision that any member, at any time, can force a snap floor vote to ditch the speaker, known as the "motion to vacate." McCarthy is opposed to this, since he understands how weak he is and remembers that the chaos that finally drove Boehner out of the job. McCarthy may not be the brightest bulb on the Capitol Christmas tree, but he's well aware that his enemies in the party wouldn't hesitate to stage a floor vote against him every time he tries to do anything they don't like. (Imagine trusting Greene, for example, with that kind of power.)

But what happens once McCarthy finally gets the gavel? He's got a small rump of moderate members in states that Joe Biden carried in 2020 who will next face re-election during a presidential year. To his right, there's the larger faction of wingnuts pushing him to go nuclear on the administration and the Democrats. These are the folks the New York Times characterizes as "chaos agents":

[McCarthy] has to contend with something that no Democrat has had to face: a sizable group that was sent to Congress explicitly to obstruct. Some of the people he is attempting to bargain with don't seem to have a price. They're not motivated by legislating as much as they are about shrinking the federal government, or upending it completely.

That report observes that Pelosi has the relative luxury of being able to negotiate with her members, whether they're progressives or moderates, and respond to specific demands. The only thing McCarthy can do is hand his members the matches so they can blow the place up.

What happens if and when McCarthy finally gets the gavel? He's stuck between a rump faction of moderates from Biden states and a larger faction of wingnuts who want to go nuclear immediately.

This explains why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are working furiously with the White House to get the government funded for the next year during the lame-duck session that will conclude next week. They know exactly what the House extremists are likely to do and it appears that enough Senate Republicans recognize that it would be a disaster for the country if they are allowed to stage their confrontational politics right out of the box.

McCarthy is out there rending his garments over this possibility, exclaiming that the Senate should wait until his new majority is sworn in and "allow the American people what they said a month ago, to change Washington as they know it today," whatever that's supposed to mean. (In fact, McCarthy's slim majority resulted from just 6,670 votes across the five most closely contested House races. A mandate it is not.)

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told Semafor that all of this was for McCarthy's own good: "I just think for Kevin's sake, even though he's not asking for it, I think some Republicans just feel like we should relieve him of that burden." That's one way of putting it, I guess.

Keep in mind that all of this disarray and tumult is happening before the Republicans actually assume the House majority in the House. Even if Kevin McCarthy survives this challenge in the short term, it's clear as day that he doesn't have what it takes to control the situation. The chaos agents are in charge. All he can do is hang on for dear life and hope the maelstrom doesn't swallow him whole. 

Read more on the Jan. 6 committee:

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton