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Kevin McCarthy’s bid to speak faces the final hurdle

WASHINGTON — Just days before Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, the party is still looking for a speaker.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy is the first choice of most House Republicans to head the chamber, but he and his allies were still working Sunday to garner the support of a small but determined group of GOP lawmakers who are in power have to block his offer the slim majority the party will have in the next congress.

With the speaker’s vote scheduled for Tuesday, Mr. McCarthy of California made a list of rule changes he is willing to make to empower ordinary lawmakers, including one that would help disaffected lawmakers, in a conference call before House Republicans on Sunday afternoon would make it easier to oust a speaker. However, it’s unclear whether the proposal has garnered enough critics on board.

The roll-call vote for the Speaker on the first day of a new Congress is often a formality, but how it will play out when the House meets on Tuesday is unclear, according to several lawmakers and advisers.

Sunday’s conference call and other meetings with smaller groups over the Christmas holidays have produced little public evidence that the dissidents will now support Mr McCarthy. The uncertainty sets the stage for what may be the most dramatic speaker choice in a century, as members choose a successor for outgoing speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., California).

If a candidate does not win a majority of the House of Representatives voting and present on the first ballot, which is likely to be set at 218 votes, another roll-call vote will be held. Both Mr McCarthy’s supporters and opponents have indicated they believe the vote could go to a second ballot, which has not happened since 1923. This year, nine ballots were required to select a speaker.

“We certainly had uncertainty. We’ve never had a situation where the people trying to gum the works seem to be able to show the math they can,” said Brendan Buck, a former aide to Republican Speaker John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

Mr McCarthy, who works with a smaller-than-expected majority in the House of Representatives, has had to struggle to win over far-right Conservatives who want changes to House rules that would give them new powers to challenge the leadership. Mr McCarthy has offered to change the rules to allow five House lawmakers to table a “motion to vacate the presidency”, a procedure that could result in a no-confidence vote in plenary. Under current rules, only party leaders can make such a request.

On Sunday’s conference call, centrist Republicans and others said they would only approve the rule change if it would get Mr. McCarthy the votes he needs, according to two people on the conference call. Some fear the rule change could weaken speakership. Mr. McCarthy did not say such a change would bring enough opponents on board.

“If we’re going to reform welfare, if we’re going to reform government spending, it’s going to take a strong leader, and I would strongly object to any rule change that weakens Kevin’s authority,” said Rep. Glenn Grothman (R., Wisconsin). .) said in an interview before the conference call.

About two dozen members have not said how they would vote and five strongly oppose Mr McCarthy, citing doubts about his Conservative credibility as well as personal disputes. During the call, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.) opposed five lawmakers stopping the motion to clear the sill, but left unclear whether a proposal would prompt him to support Mr. McCarthy.

“The request for eviction is not an end in itself. It’s an enforcement tool to keep every speaker on their promises,” Mr. Gaetz said in comment before the conference call. “Kevin has no intention of keeping his promises.”

In a statement Sunday, nine House Republicans wrote that Mr. McCarthy has not yet satisfied their demands for changes in the way the House of Representatives operates. “To date, there remains a lack of specific commitments related to virtually every component of our requests,” read the statement, which was signed by Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and others. The statement said that “times call for a radical shift from the status quo” in House GOP leadership.

With House Republicans expected to command a 222-212 majority, with one absentee, Mr. McCarthy cannot lose more than four from his conference if all Democrats support their leadership, as they traditionally do.

Mathematics forced Mr. McCarthy to maneuver carefully. He opposed the omnibus spending bill, which hardline GOP conservatives opposed, although many Republicans benefited from the bill’s earmarking and praised the increase in military spending. He has delayed setting up committees where battles for coveted leadership roles are expected so as not to anger lawmakers before the speaker’s race.

He has also refrained from commenting on George Santos, the newly elected New York congressman who has admitted to falsifying his resume and has been urged by members of both parties to investigate his background and finances further. The slim majority means Mr Santos could be a necessary vote.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives dictates the agenda for the panel and which bills get the floor. The position is responsible for enforcing must-pass laws, such as: B. Spending bills, and negotiations with Senate leaders and the White House. Ms Pelosi has made her mark as a speaker through the Affordable Care Act and the Democrats’ Covid-19 relief package. When Mr. Ryan was Speaker, the Republican Congress passed a sweeping GOP tax bill.

Mr. McCarthy, age 57, entered the House of Representatives in 2007 and was selected by House Republicans as the speaker candidate in November, in a 188-31 vote against his GOP challenger, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona. However, this victory could not remove all doubts.

Mr Biggs, who is also running to be speaker, appears to have garnered enough support to block Mr McCarthy on the floor on the first vote. In addition to Messrs. Biggs and Gaetz, Bob Good of Virginia, Matt Rosendale of Montana and Ralph Norman of South Carolina have also indicated that they would vote against McCarthy.

“Even after several weeks of attempts by the McCarthy machine to whip votes and smear my name, McCarthy is still a long way from the 218 threshold,” Mr. Biggs said. “Our party still needs a new leadership.”

However, more Republicans have vowed to support only Mr. McCarthy, even putting “OK” buttons on their lapels that stand for “Only Kevin” in December. They say they would support Mr. McCarthy on any vote, no matter how many votes it takes, and are urging the holdouts to come on board.

“I think Tuesday will be a day of unification for our conference,” Rep. Kevin Hern (R., Okla.), who supports Mr. McCarthy, said in comments over the weekend. “Our constituents have been demanding that we get back to work, and the sooner we can do that, the sooner we can deliver on our promises.”

Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas) said earlier Sunday in an interview on Fox that many House Republicans have benefited from Mr. McCarthy’s prolific fundraising over the years. “Frankly, he funded a lot of these races to make sure they come back to represent their district,” said Mr. Brady, who is retiring from the House of Representatives. “I’m confident he can bring those final votes together. It’s not an easy job.”

Should Republicans find themselves bogged down after multiple ballots, many lawmakers and advisers expect the conference to call an emergency session to debate privately. If it is clear that Mr. McCarthy cannot convince his critics, an alternative candidate may emerge. That could be Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the current Minority Whip who is set to be Majority Leader in the new Congress and who has said he stands firmly behind Mr. McCarthy. It could also be a popular member who is not in the lead now.

Mr. McCarthy has seen the job slip through his fingers before. When it opened in 2015, he made a faux pas in a TV interview about the Republican investigation in Benghazi, saying the investigation was an attempt to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. Mr. Ryan took the job instead, and Mr. McCarthy became his No. 2. When Mr. Ryan left Congress in 2019, Mr. McCarthy became the leader of the House Republicans, then in the minority.

Some of the opposition to Mr. McCarthy this time stems from personal disputes. Mr McCarthy said after the January 6 riot in the Capitol that he would have liked to see Mr Gaetz’ Twitter account deleted, comments revealed in a leaked phone call. Mr. Good has called Mr. McCarthy a product of the “swamp cartel” and failed to appreciate that the GOP leader spent money to oppose him when Mr. Good challenged an incumbent Republican.

Mr. McCarthy rose through the GOP ranks with an encyclopedic knowledge of counties across the country and a tireless appetite for fundraising and campaigning. He’s not known for political acumen, but supporters say he listens to their ideas. His critics say he bends with the wind, pleasing the moderates in the conference or the extreme right when need be.

He brought Republicans together this year on a legislative agenda dubbed the “Commitment to America,” which loosely lays out the GOP approach in the new Congress. Republicans said they want to cut recently increased funding for the Internal Revenue Service. Leaders have also signaled they would increase oversight over the Biden administration’s handling of the Covid pandemic and border security. GOP lawmakers are also expected to open inquiries into the business dealings of Hunter Biden, the president’s son, and the Justice Department’s investigation into Mr Trump.

—Kristina Peterson contributed to this article.

Authors: Natalie Andrews at natalie.andrews@wsj.com

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