Searches for a Speaker alternative to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) are slowly building momentum as he faces opposition that threatens to sink his bid.
On one side, McCarthy’s fiercest detractors are teasing that there are people interested in being a viable GOP consensus substitute for the current minority leader. On the other, members say preliminary conversations are happening among Republicans and Democrats about a possible contingency candidate if McCarthy cannot win the gavel after multiple ballots in the new GOP-majority House next month.
Neither side will name names, fearing that anyone mentioned as a candidate would get intense blowback.
“If somebody were to come out now and we didn’t deliver enough votes to stop Mr. McCarthy, that there would be a real potential for blowback,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a former chair of the House Freedom Caucus who has mounted a protest challenge to McCarthy for the House GOP nomination, a bid he is continuing as he searches for an alternative. “They want to be very careful. So I think I think people are interested. They’ve expressed it to some of us … I think people are being wary.”
Biggs speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 29, 2021.
Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) told Fox News there are a number of candidates who have come to McCarthy’s conservative opponents privately to say they’d like to be considered for Speaker once it is clear he cannot win the votes. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has publicly called for other House Republicans to step up as an alternative.
Biggs thinks there are still around 20 House Republicans members who will be “hard no’s” on McCarthy, which would be enough to deny him a majority of total lawmakers.
Right now, Biggs, Good and Gaetz are part of a group of five GOP members — along with Reps. Matt Rosendale (Mont.) and Ralph Norman (S.C.) — who have said or indicated they will not vote for McCarthy or “present” on the House floor in the next Congress.
Several others have withheld support for McCarthy without revealing how they would vote. On Thursday, seven more hardline conservatives signed a letter laying out demands for what they want from a GOP Speaker in terms of House rules and priorities, without naming McCarthy. The California Republican has held several meetings with members of that group on potential rules changes.
“We’re talking about who the other candidates are, who can get into it. Again, we’re not going to get it publicly throw those names out there because then the disinformation campaign is directed towards them, then the retaliatory efforts go towards them,” Good told conservative radio host John Fredricks on Wednesday.
Good leaves the House Chamber following the final vote of the week regarding the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act on March 18, 2022.
McCarthy needs a majority of those voting for a Speaker candidate to win the gavel on Jan. 3. With a slim majority of 222 Republicans to 212 Democrats and one vacancy, the five or more members voting against him could potentially keep him from the gavel or force multiple ballots for Speaker — a scenario that hasn’t happened in 100 years.
The situation is leading to bipartisan talks about contingency plans if it becomes clear that McCarthy cannot win the gavel — and more moderate House Republicans indicate their preferred alternative would not necessarily be someone the hardliners would want.
“We’ve had preliminary talks with the Democrats,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told reporters. “If we have multiple, multiple votes, and they’re not willing to support what the far majority of the conference wants to do, we’re not going to be held hostage by them.”
Bacon later added on C-SPAN that he does think McCarthy will be elected Speaker and that he will support the GOP leader as long as he “stays in the fight.” But he does have “a few names” of possible alternatives, he said, without revealing any.
At least one House Democrat is publicly saying there is some “openness” among Democrats to working with Republicans to pick an alternative to McCarthy.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said he’d consider supporting a unity candidate if McCarthy stumbles and can’t win the gavel. Republicans have already reached out to him directly to gauge his interest, Khanna said, and “a few” other Democrats have received similar entreaties.
Their message is: “’You’ve always been for reform, what can we do to get some of these reforms? This may be a historic opportunity.'”
He, too, did not name names. But it is not clear Republicans would make any kinds of structural concessions to get Democratic support.
Khanna shakes hands with President Biden after a signing ceremony for the CHIPS and Science Act on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on August 9, 2022.
“It requires some shared subpoena power, some commitment to legislating. And it would have to be the right candidate,” Khanna said.
He declined to offer any potential names, saying that if he floated one, “it’ll probably become toxic.” But he emphasized that a Speaker does “not necessarily” have to be a sitting member.
On Friday, Khanna told CNN that he has not talked to Bacon about a possible alternative.
Such a situation would be unprecedented in modern history. The House has chosen the majority party nominee in every Speakership election since at least 1913, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
And it is also a scenario feared by some hardline House Republicans who have broken with their Freedom Caucus colleagues to strongly support McCarthy.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has repeatedly warned that the slim majority could cause moderate Republicans to work with Democrats to elect a Speaker who is less conservative than McCarthy. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is set to chair the House Judiciary Committee in a GOP majority, told Breitbart last weekend that he worries some Republicans could work with Democrats to elect a Speaker who will not allow the types of investigations into the Biden administration that he wants to conduct.
Greene leaves the House Chamber following the last votes of the week on July 21, 2022.
With just three weeks until the new Congress and the Speakership election, some of McCarthy’s closest allies are brushing off the prospect of someone other than McCarthy becoming Speaker, noting the lack of any other viable GOP candidate.
“I think Kevin will get there. It might go a couple rounds, we’ll see. But at the end of the day, you can’t beat somebody with nobody,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). “There is no other member of the Republican conference that is currently here that can get 218 votes.”
Frustration is bubbling up in the House GOP Conference over the opposition to McCarthy. Two House GOP caucuses – the Republican Governance Group, an organization of more center-leaning members formerly known as the Tuesday Group, and the Main Street Caucus, a group of pragmatic governance-minded Republicans – have released letters in recent days urging their House Republican colleagues to support McCarthy. The former group urged Republicans to “put posturing aside.”
“He’s brought the conference from the minority to the majority. He’s been to every single congressional district. He’s broken all fundraising records. He’s raised close to half a billion dollars,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you can put all that work and dedicate your life and sacrifice your time, yourself, your family, only in the 11th hour to have a knife in your back, nobody’s ever going to do that work again. It would set the worst precedent I can imagine politically.”
—Mike Lillis contributed.