Kevin McCarthy tries to boost his conservative bona fides as pro-Trump lawmakers threaten his bid as speaker


Three weeks before the midterm elections, Kevin McCarthy infuriated the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus after the GOP leader publicly suggested that he has yet to see criminal acts committed by the Biden administration.

Hardline Republicans — who have agitated to impeach President Joe Biden or any member of his cabinet — tuned in to McCarthy in a group chat, expressing deep concern over his comments, according to GOP sources familiar with the internal calls.

But two weeks into the election, with Republicans underperforming and winning a slimmer-than-expected majority that jeopardized McCarthy’s House Speaker bid, McCarthy struck a different tone: He called on Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to resign. accused him of lying to the American public and failing to enforce immigration laws, and threatened to launch an impeachment inquiry if he does not step aside. A spokeswoman for Mayorkas said he has no intention of resigning.

McCarthy’s change in tone comes at a critical time for the California Republican, who faces a revolt from his right that could undermine his longstanding ambitions as speaker. McCarthy’s new impeachment threat is one of the few ways he hopes to win over conservative critics and secure the 218 votes necessary to become speaker in January. McCarthy takes a carrot-over-stick approach, using a mix of private negotiations and public appeals about what he would do as a speaker, in an effort to single out opponents.

But it’s unclear whether his public and private maneuvers will be enough to soften the holdouts. On McCarthy’s threat of impeachment and firing at the border, a member of the House Freedom Caucus said he “gives in.”

“In fact, it was counterproductive,” the GOP legislator told CNN. “He didn’t say this when he thought he was going to get a big majority. He does all these things because he has a slim majority and every vote counts. … I just don’t think it will bring the result he hopes for.

Another member criticizing McCarthy called his moves a “step” in the right direction, but said “he should have said it sooner” and wanted McCarthy’s statement to be accompanied by a “threat of funding” to show that he really mean.

However, McCarthy’s allies insist that he is going to make it, arguing that no one else is better equipped for the job. Another reason for their confidence: they don’t see anyone else at the conference being able to make it to 218. And they think McCarthy will take his fight for the gavel all the way to the ground, unlike in 2015 when he dropped out of the race before even getting to the conference behind closed doors vote.

“In general, most members think McCarthy is going to pull this off. They don’t quite know how. We can’t necessarily articulate how he’s going to pull this off,” South Dakota Representative Dusty Johnson, who supports McCarthy, told CNN. “But there’s a sense that he’s a very smart operator. He really understands the members, he really understands the politics and his team is really top notch.”

“There’s a bit of fear among members who support McCarthy because we can’t see exactly how he’s going to pull this off,” he added, “but there’s a general sense that he will.”

So far, at least five House Republicans have publicly threatened to oppose McCarthy on the floor, which could be enough to derail his bid for speakership if Republicans are only a four-seat margin, as McCarthy has predicted. They include representatives Matt Gaetz of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Ralph Norman of South Carolina and Bob Good of Virginia.

And more names could be coming, as the anti-McCarthy group purposely leaked names over an extended period of time — a strategy designed to gain more attention from leadership. Three dozen Republicans voted against McCarthy last week in the GOP’s internal leadership election, where McCarthy was nominated by his party to speak.

“The strategy is to trickle out a name every four or five days or every week, just to make sure people know. It’s not just four or five,” one of the GOP lawmakers said.

McCarthy will somehow have to get at least one of these members to turn their vote or convince them to either “vote in attendance” or skip the floor procedure – which would lower the threshold he needs to get to speak to become. Some Republicans in the “Never Kevin” camp are seen as something more viable: Rosendale, for example, told CNN he would only vote for McCarthy “under extreme circumstances,” leaving him a little bit of leeway.

So far, McCarthy has not closed any major deals, but is currently negotiating with the House Freedom Caucus over a package of possible rule changes. The group is also urging him to take a public stand on a range of issues, according to GOP sources familiar with the negotiations. At the moment, however, they feel the ball is in McCarthy’s court.

McCarthy, wary of looking like he’s making covert deals with his right wing and alienating some of the more moderate members, has also tried to appeal to conservatives with more public-facing moves.

He recently reiterated a pledge to fire Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Eric Swalwell of California, and Adam Schiff of California — three Democrats who routinely rogue on the right — from important committee assignments. And McCarthy also recently vowed to abolish remote voting, reopen the House, and begin each session day with a pledge and prayer — even though the House already does that every day.

Burnt by the Freedom Caucus during its 2015 quest for the gavel, McCarthy’s maneuver for the speakership began long before the midterm elections.

For the past year, he has worked to help freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a former McCarthy critic and staunch Trump ally, into the fold. He has held weekly sit-down meetings with Greene, invited her to House GOP tours on the southern border and in Pittsburgh, and supported her as she sought a coveted seat on the House Oversight Committee. His effort appears to be paying off, as Greene is now vocally supporting McCarthy as a speaker.

Similarly, Rep. Ohio’s Jim Jordan — who once challenged McCarthy for a leadership position — is now seen as a staunch McCarthy ally, in part because McCarthy paved the way for him to head the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Jordan, too, has backed the speaker’s bid from McCarthy, telling CNN he encourages other Republicans to do the same.

Jordan also wouldn’t ask questions about any scenario in which he’d run for a job — say, if McCarthy doesn’t make it to 218. “I want to be president of the judiciary,” he said.

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