All that Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy wants for Christmas is the four votes he needs to hold the gavel as speaker of the House of Representatives. But at this point it looks like it will take a Christmas Miracle™.
This past week, five members of the contrarian House Freedom Caucus restressed their antipathy for McCarthy. Representatives Andy Biggs, Ralph Norman, Matt Gaetz, Bob Good and Matt Rosendale have promised as a bloc to vote against McCarthy, denying him the 218 votes he needs to become speaker.
Biggs ran against McCarthy for Republican majority leader after November’s lukewarm midterm elections — and lost. He knows he is playing spoiler. But what then?
Should McCarthy fail to win the four votes by January 3, the House will continue voting until a majority elects someone. The last time this happened was 1923, and it took nine ballots. Such a floor fight will make Republicans look incapable of governing, especially since it’s unclear who can harness 218 votes if McCarthy can’t.
Of course, the anti-McCarthy bloc has a point. Their five “no” votes indicate there are likely more members — especially from the Freedom Caucus — who would happily vote for someone else. Ohio congressman and Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan remains a favorite with that wing of the party, despite his vocal backing of McCarthy. But then, thanks to Biggs, Jordan wouldn’t have to move in the public eye.
Americans aren’t used to seeing these sorts of intraparty politics out in the open. Fortunately, our cousins across the Pond have given us the perfect template for understanding how the next Speaker will be chosen.
In the 1984 Yes, Minister Christmas Special “Party Games,” the candidates to Britain’s prime minister all foundered in their bid for the top job. Without a deep bench, the hapless Department of Administrative Affairs minister and party leader Jim Hacker emerged as a compromise candidate — not without help from his scheming permanent secretary Sir Humphrey and the Civil Service.
Unfortunately, McCarthy doesn’t have Sir Humphrey to put him over the edge. Despite allying with the Freedom Caucus throughout President Trump’s presidency and winning support from members like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, McCarthy is coming up short. His “Commitment to America” failed to deliver him the majority he needed to avoid this embarrassing fight. Even promises to impeach Department of Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and investigate Hunter Biden have failed to crystalize a majority.
Once it becomes clear that McCarthy still doesn’t have the votes, you can expect the Freedom Caucus to float Jim Jordan again. Sure, Jordan is on the record as being happy with his assignment as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, but as we learned from Yes, Minister, the best way to signal that you want to job is to “express no interest in that area.”
Representative Gaetz has gone on the record as thinking that the next likely speaker of the House hasn’t put his hat in the ring yet. Jordan has so far declined to run and has the benefit of being one of the few people in Congress who could corral the HFC, but that leaves the majority of the party to win over.
Biggs will have done Jordan’s dirty work for him by illustrating McCarthy’s lack of support and forcing multiple ballots. At what point will the need for party unity combined with political exhaustion overcome members’ loyalty to McCarthy? How many rounds of votes will the House go through before lieutenants like Steve Scalise or David Joyce decide to strike out on their own?
Suddenly the field could be much more crowded and the party that much more divided. A few rounds in, expect the party to adjourn and take the discussion back to the smoke-filled rooms of another era. With multiple candidates, deals will be struck, compromises brokered, and the Rules Package likely revisited.
Members are still negotiating over the Rules for next Congress; if McCarthy is to find his four votes, it will require more serious horse trading over the Rules. HFC still wants to bring back the ability to vacate the chair. Does McCarthy want the seat badly enough to risk being ousted at the first sign of discord between the Freedom Caucus and the rest of the party? At that rate, McCarthy’s speakership would be shorter than Liz Truss’s turn as UK prime minister.
Republicans need a Christmas compromise if they want to avoid looking incapable of governing. That’s not to mention how much Democrats will enjoy the theatrics as its new class of leadership starts learning the ropes. While Republicans burn time and political capital, Pelosi, Hoyer and the rest of her team will be mentoring Hakeem Jeffries and the new guard of Democratic leadership. Never has the Republicans’ lack of depth in leadership had such a stark contrast.
But one thing is certain, whichever Republican emerges from the backrooms will have won several successive rounds of party games and will rightfully take his place as America’s Jim Hacker, the MP turned PM. We can only wonder who will take their place as Sir Humphrey, pulling the stings.