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Kevin McCarthy faces rocky road to speakership as hardliners emboldened by GOP’s election showing

<i>Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters</i><br/>Members of the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus are withholding their support for House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy's speakership bid and have begun to lay out their list of demands. McCarthy is pictured here in September in Washington.
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
Members of the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus are withholding their support for House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy's speakership bid and have begun to lay out their list of demands. McCarthy is pictured here in September in Washington.

By Melanie Zanona and Manu Raju, CNN

Members of the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus are withholding their support for House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy’s speakership bid and have begun to lay out their list of demands, putting the California Republican’s path to securing 218 votes in peril if the party ultimately takes the House with a slim majority.

McCarthy and his team are confident he will ultimately get the votes to be speaker. But the conservative hardliners are emboldened by the likelihood of a narrow House GOP majority and are threatening to withhold their support — something that could imperil his bid or force him to make deals to weaken the speakership, something he has long resisted.

Rep. Chip Roy of Texas told reporters that “no one currently has 218” votes for speaker, which is the magic number McCarthy would need to secure the speaker’s gavel on the House floor in January, and said he wants McCarthy to list in greater detail his plans for a wide array of investigations into the Biden administration. And Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona complained that McCarthy seemed to backpedal on whether he’d be willing to launch impeachment proceedings into President Joe Biden or members of his Cabinet.

“I’ve heard from multiple of my constituents who question the wisdom of proceeding forward with that leadership,” Biggs said, adding that there needs to be a “frank conversation” about who they elect for the top job.

Members of the group are also pushing to make it easier for lawmakers to call for floor votes on ousting a sitting speaker. That is something that McCarthy is adamantly against and was wielded over former Speaker John Boehner before he eventually resigned.

Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado said it was a “red line” for her, but not everyone in the Freedom Caucus is united on whether to make that a hard line.

The Freedom Caucus, a group that includes dozens of hardline members, have been meeting in Washington, DC, this week for their new member orientation, where they have begun to plot out their strategy for the speaker’s race. With a slimmer-than-expected majority, they see an opportunity, and are planning to use their leverage to get more power in a GOP-led House.

But the group’s push to extract concessions from McCarthy has exacerbated tensions inside the party. Said one senior GOP lawmaker: “They are a bunch of selfish, prima dona a**holes who want attention for themselves. They are trading effectiveness for the warm embrace of their social media followers.”

McCarthy, who has been working the phones locking down support from across the conference and received former President Donald Trump’s endorsement on Monday, still remains a frontrunner for the job, and no serious challenger has emerged. And two would-be challengers, Reps. Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise, have lined up behind his speakership bid.

McCarthy also has time to win over critics. The GOP’s internal leadership elections, where he only needs a simple majority to win his party’s nomination for speaker, are next week, but the floor vote where McCarthy needs a majority of the entire House is not until January.

His ability to round up 218 votes for speaker will ultimately depend on two things: the size of his majority and whether he’s willing to cut deals with the conservatives that he assiduously courted after they denied him the speakership in 2015. So far, however, McCarthy has not made any promises or given in their demands, with sources saying he has just been in listening mode with potential holdouts.

CNN has yet to project which party will have control of the House of Representatives, though as of Friday morning, CNN has projected that Republicans have 211 seats to Democrats’ 198.

Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina said McCarthy personally called and asked for his support for speaker, but Norman wouldn’t commit. He told McCarthy there’s a group of them that wants to meet in person, which he said McCarthy was amenable to.

Norman said the group hopes to formalize a lengthier list of all the rules changes they are seeking. They are also pushing to delay next week’s internal leadership elections, though there is no indication McCarthy plans to do so.

“I’m not supporting anybody until I know what the blueprint is,” Norman said.

When asked whether McCarthy should get credit for delivering the majority, Norman responded: “The taxpayers that voted the representatives in deserve the credit.”

Rep. Bob Good, a member of the Freedom Caucus, told reporters that McCarthy “has not done anything to earn my vote” for speaker.

The Virginia Republican also predicted that “there will be a challenge to (McCarthy) as a speaker candidate,” a possibility that CNN first reported was under consideration by the group.

Such a challenge would be more of a protest candidate than a serious one. The group just wants to show McCarthy during next week’s internal GOP leadership elections that he doesn’t have the floor votes for speaker, in hopes of forcing him to the negotiating table.

But there is at least one member who has said there is nothing McCarthy could do to earn his vote. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida said on his podcast that not only was McCarthy not his first choice to lead, he was not “even in my top 100”.

“With a slim majority, we shouldn’t be starting the C team,” Gaetz said. “We need to put our star players in a position to shine brightest so that we can attract more people to our policies and ideas.”

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