Conservatives threaten to withhold critical McCarthy support, hours before speaker vote

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Kevin McCarthy has already moved into the speaker’s office, even as an influential conservative group urges members to vote against him unless he concedes to key rules changes.

With the House slated to start voting on who will command the gavel in less than 24 hours, McCarthy remains short of the necessary 218 votes. And his last-ditch efforts, including a long list of concessions he released to his conference over the weekend, has done little to sway his most ardent detractors.

And even as McCarthy predicted concessions he made to the House rules are helping him pick up support, his opponents and skeptics spent Monday lobbing new criticisms his way.

“Why didn’t we get McCarthy’s proposed rules package at least 72 hours in advance?” tweeted Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), a Freedom Caucus member.

Electing a speaker is typically a symbolic moment, with the vote decided weeks if not months ahead of time. But absent a sudden flip among his detractors, McCarthy’s bid for the gavel will prompt a historically rare showdown, marking just the second time since the Civil War that the race could go beyond one ballot. In fact, many Republicans are bracing for votes that could last multiple days, as McCarthy’s allies vow to only vote for him and five conservatives promise to oppose him, with no clear alternative candidate.

McCarthy met briefly with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of his most ardent opponents, as well as Reps. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), neither of whom have committed to voting for the California Republican.

But while Gaetz quipped heading into the meeting that they could be on “the verge of a New Year’s miracle,” he said afterward that the talk was “brief and productive” — and, critically, that he and five others are still “no” votes.

The conservative Club for Growth released a whip notice for the speakership vote on Monday, urging a no vote on McCarthy — without explicitly naming him — if he didn’t concede to various rules being pushed by some of those opposing him, many of them members of the House Freedom Caucus.

Those lawmakers’ demands have included allowing any one member to force a vote on the House floor to depose a speaker. The Club for Growth also mirrored those members' calls for prohibiting the Congressional Leadership Fund, a campaign committee closely aligned with McCarthy, from “spending money or providing grants to any Super PAC to engage … in open Republican primaries or against any Republican incumbent.” The group also took issue with the lack of "true conservatives" being represented in leadership.

The fresh signs of trouble come as McCarthy convened a strategy session on Monday evening with dozens of his supporters. The meeting, according to GOP attendees, was meant to motivate his backers, as they gathered in the speaker’s office for the first time, and McCarthy vowed to fight no matter how many ballots it takes.

“There’s still a few things up in the air,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who attended the meeting. “[But] I think he gets there. The question is when.”

Despite not yet having a lock on the gavel, McCarthy is spending Monday working out of the speaker’s office, a tradition routinely granted to the speaker-elect. If he falls short, he would have to move back out of the prestigious office.

Republicans are preparing for a grueling day Tuesday. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), a McCarthy ally, predicted Republicans will go “however long it takes.” But the first vote would provide some early indications on how the day would play out, he added.

“The way the alphabet works, you’ll know on the first ballot pretty quickly. And then we’ll figure out how it grinds out,” Armstrong said, referring to the alphabetical process for calling on members to cast their votes.

Armstrong predicted that it would be a “long night.” When asked if that meant votes would last until Wednesday's early hours, he quipped back: “January 10th?”

Meanwhile, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who McCarthy opponents are backing as a figurehead for their frustration, described the Californian as being in “total bargaining mode” but that he doesn’t believe McCarthy “will ever get to 218 votes.”

Others issued more cryptic takes: “Some people who run campaigns against the swamp sure are quick to wilt in the face of challenges (to different degrees) to that very swamp…” tweeted Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) on Monday.

But as McCarthy’s opponents take a hard line, some of his supporters are reviving their own threats.

McCarthy ally Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said Monday his previous warning — that a band of moderate Republicans would work with Democrats to elect a centrist GOP speaker, if conservatives tank McCarthy — remains on the table.

“If a few won’t be part of the 218 members we need to govern, we’ll then find other ways to get to 218,” Bacon wrote in an op-ed in the Daily Caller.

Some Republicans have floated Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) as a possible alternative to McCarthy if he fell short, though his No. 2 is vowing to support him. However, Bacon told reporters on Monday night that if McCarthy withdraws he and a bipartisan group would put forward another name besides Scalise.

“I love Steve but … I just don’t think it’s fair to say we want Kevin’s scalp, so then we’ll take Steve. I think you’re paying ransom money to the hostage takers by doing that,” Bacon said.