When the 118th United States Congress convenes on January 3 2023, the first order of business for the House of Representatives is to elect a new speaker.
The current frontrunner for this powerful position is California Republican Kevin McCarthy. But McCarthy’s path to the speakership is not guaranteed, and could be sabotaged from within his own Republican caucus.
In November’s midterms, Republicans won control of the House with 222 seats to the Democrats’ 213. Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House who served from 2007 to 2011 and then again from 2019, will step down in January. Typically, the party which has the majority in the House chooses its leading figure to become speaker.
McCarthy, 57, has been a California congressman since 2007, becoming House Republican leader in 2019 and has coveted the House speakership for some time.
As he launches his bid, McCarthy is encountering opposition from members of the “Freedom Caucus” – a group of ultra-conservative House members. This resistance was made plain when an internal Republican leadership ballot was held. McCarthy won 188 votes, with Arizona representative Andy Biggs securing the backing of 31 anti-McCarthy Republicans.
McCarthy’s dilemma is that it could take only five defections from within his own party to fatally damage his speakership ambitions – and five Republicans have already made clear they will not vote for him.
It is becoming increasingly likely that McCarthy will fall short in the first ballot. This means the contest will run for multiple rounds – something that has not occurred since 1923 – and he will need to pick up votes or withdraw. Voting rounds go on until the majority is reached.
McCarthy is currently striking deals with, and making commitments to, extreme right-wing members of Congress. This has already involved promising to remove high-profile Democrats from committee roles as well as restoring Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a 2020 election denier, to her previous committee assignments. This has banked Greene’s endorsement.
McCarthy is also offering to alter House procedural rules to empower backbench Republicans, as well as supporting an impeachment inquiry of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, a Democrat in Joe Biden’s cabinet.
Some undecided House Republicans have demanded that McCarthy make it permissible to force a vote on motions to “vacate the chair” – in effect, to remove the sitting speaker. This would make the next Congress very unstable for any speaker.
Even if McCarthy manages to get to 218 votes, his speakership will be challenging. If he wavers on the demands of the extreme right-wing, or offers criticism of Donald Trump, then McCarthy could find his tenure very short.
In early December the Washington Post identified the Republican congressmen planning to vote against McCarthy as Andy Biggs, Matt Gaetz, Bob Good and Ralph Norman, plus a “very likely no” in Matthew M. Rosendale. These men represent Republicans who are angry that a “red wave” of victories did not take place in the midterms and blame McCarthy. Florida Congressman Gaetz has labelled McCarthy “McFailure”.
Who is the competition?
Biggs denounced McCarthy as being part of the Washington “establishment”, stating his campaign is an opportunity to “reinvigorate the America First movement” founded by Trump. Biggs drew national attention for his involvement in Washington and Arizona to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Trump’s favour.
Those seeking to become speaker must secure an absolute majority of assembled members. The vote will take place on the floor of the House by the 435-member body, with 218 votes needed. The US constitution gives the House exclusive powers, such as to initiate revenue bills. The speaker is therefore a pivotal player within the federal government (and also third in succession to the presidency).
This person holds huge sway over the legislative process, controlling the House rules committee which structures debates to advance or kill-off bills that may be presidential priorities. The speaker, as politics professor Matthew Green explains, balances legislative, institutional and partisan agendas in ways few other representatives can do.
Push to the hard right
Regardless of who gets to wield the speaker’s gavel, they will be constrained by the impulses of hard-right Republicans. In showing deference to the Make America Great Again (MAGA) base, the new speaker will be expected to launch investigations into the Biden administration, and in particular the president’s son Hunter. This has been a long-term goal of Republican lawmakers, who want to use their subpoena power to question foreign entities connected to messages and financial transactions allegedly found on a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden.
A public endorsement from Trump for either McCarthy or Biggs would be a massive boon for their respective campaigns. Biggs appears as an obvious fit for Trump, having lavished adulation on the former president – something which Trump both demands and thrives on.
The Trump/McCarthy relationship endured a brief split following the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. McCarthy initially blamed the former president for inciting the insurrection but made a quick volte-face, positioning himself since as a staunch defender of Trump.
Salvaging McCarthy’s quest to become speaker could be viewed by Trump as useful as he launches his third bid for the White House – as would having a grateful ally at the epicentre of political power in Washington.