A messy speaker’s race in the House threatens to spill a lot of milk for the GOP

Unless something changes fast, the 118th Congress will begin Jan. 3 like an explosion inside a dairy with a lot of ‘spilled milk’ on one side of the aisle.  

It will be pure chaos if House Republicans can’t settle on a speaker. 

House Republicans will control the majority. They have big plans — address the border crisis, tackle inflation, impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, investigate Hunter Biden’s laptop and wheel in Dr. Anthony Fauci.

But Republicans are divided. There’s a contingent of members, ranging from five to more than 20 Republicans — depending on who you believe — who just won’t support House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., for speaker. 

That bedlam could mark an inauspicious start for the House GOP despite its agenda. 

The speaker’s race foreshadows the tumult ahead for Republicans to accomplish much of anything, let alone run the U.S. House of Representatives.

‘If we don’t get this right, we’re going to fail the American public,’ McCarthy warned on FOX Business. ‘This has to get done. It’s delaying our ability to really govern.’

Seeing how dire his situation may be, McCarthy is now putting the conundrum in concrete terms to his members. 

‘We don’t have staff yet. We don’t have committees even populated,’ McCarthy said on Fox, berating Republicans who oppose him. ‘A lot of them talk about wanting to empower the membership more. Well, why wouldn’t they respect what the membership voted on?’

McCarthy underscored that point in a closed-door meeting last month as most House Republicans supported him for speaker. However, more than 30 didn’t. The number of votes McCarthy got is enough to get the official GOP nomination to become speaker. But, thanks to the Republicans’ narrow majority, McCarthy doesn’t have enough votes to succeed on the floor.

The winning candidate must secure an outright majority of all House members voting for a candidate by name. Thus, the precise number of votes necessary to win the speakership isn’t known until the House completes its first, verbal roll call tally Jan. 3. 

So, McCarthy is trying to guilt members who oppose him into understanding the views of the majority of the House Republican Conference who support him. McCarthy’s opponents often complain that the House is run from the top down. They don’t have enough say or input, et al. But what McCarthy asserts is if those members are true to their word, they’ll set aside their differences and back him — since that’s what most House Republicans want. 

‘We can’t do anything. We can’t even swear in the other members until we elect a speaker,’ McCarthy said on Fox.

McCarthy has huddled with recalcitrant Republicans for weeks since the election. But his entreaties haven’t dislodged any votes.

‘If the election were held today, he does not have 218,’ Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., told Fox Business. 

The magic number McCarthy needs to secure the speakership is generally understood to be 218. But, the precise number is impossible to calculate until the roll call is complete.

Despite the hurly-burly, McCarthy brims with confidence.

‘I think on Jan. 3 — before then — we’ll have the votes,’ McCarthy told Fox. 

Late last week, McCarthy held only his fourth formal press conference in the House Radio/TV Gallery Studio since March. McCarthy was testy when CNN’s Manu Raju asked the minority leader why he still hadn’t wrapped up the votes.

‘I can always count on you for the most inappropriate question,’ smirked McCarthy. ‘Next question.’

Despite McCarthy’s smugness, Raju’s question is the most prescient question in Washington right now.

If McCarthy doesn’t secure the votes to become speaker, the House could be bogged down for days if not weeks trying to pick a speaker. The House grinds to a halt. Decisions about committee assignments and chairmanships remain unfilled. 

The House’s high-minded goals of investigations are already delayed four to six weeks as it is. A powerful band of Republicans promises that if McCarthy can’t get the gavel, the House will do something unprecedented in American history: It will tap a non-member to serve as speaker.

Neither the Constitution nor House rules bar the House from selecting a non-member to be speaker. Such a move could fundamentally alter the speakership and the way America’s legislative branch functions. Republicans believe they could court a former member to stand in. Someone who could secure the votes of Republicans and some Democrats in a coalition. Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., John Katko, R-N.Y. and Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., are the names mentioned most often to Fox. All are current members. But their terms expire just before the House takes its vote for speaker Jan. 3. 

In the meantime, McCarthy is still trying to ingratiate himself with conservatives and demonstrating his bona fides. The minority leader made his opposition to the omnibus spending bill the touchstone of his campaign over the past two weeks. McCarthy castigated Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the top Republican on the panel, for crafting the 4,100-page, $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill. Both retire at the end of this Congress.

‘We’ve got two members leading appropriations in the Senate who will no longer be here or be able to be held accountable to constituents,’ said McCarthy.

McCarthy continues to argue for a short-term spending bill to keep the government lights on through early 2023. He says the House will then pass its own spending bill with Republican priorities when the GOP is in the majority. But the scuttlebutt on Capitol Hill is that Republicans would struggle in that enterprise – and perhaps many others. The lack of consensus on a speaker is emblematic of that.

Shelby suggested McCarthy’s opposition to the spending bill was just posturing. Not personal.

‘He’s running for speaker, and we understand that. And he’s got to put a coalition of Republicans together,’ said Shelby. ‘But we all know it’s the best thing to do is fund the government when you’re here — whether you’re retiring or whether you get five more years.’

A reporter asked Shelby — a veteran appropriator — if it wouldn’t be better to wait until Republicans seized control of the House.

‘It’s been my experience in my long time here in the Senate, if there’s another day, another deal never comes,’ replied Shelby.

McCarthy skeptics aren’t budging. Yet.

‘We will know at 11:59 on Jan. 3. We’re negotiating up until that time,’ said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., referring to the time just before House members cast their ballots for speaker.

There hasn’t been a second ballot for speaker since 1923. That’s when the House consumed three days and nine ballots to re-elect House Speaker Frederick Gillett, R-Mass.  

Back at McCarthy’s press conference, a reporter asked the leader if he thought there was a better chance at reforming internal House rules in the upcoming Congress or if this was just the topic of the moment.

‘Not to be facetious, but I do think we (are) much stronger in the majority than sitting in the minority,’ observed McCarthy.

And therein lies the rub.

It may have been easier for some members of the current House Republican conference to serve in the minority than the majority. It’s sometimes easier for one party to forge unity in the minority because they can fight against the majority or the other party’s president occupying the White House. 

Things are can be fractious in the majority. Those crevices emerge as yawning canyons in a small majority. In addition, it has been said that Republicans have a number of members who truly aren’t interested in governance. It’s all about ‘owning’ the other side on social media or making celebrity appearances. The term one longtime aide used to characterize some House Republicans was ‘arsonists.’ Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called them ‘political terrorists.’ Some wouldn’t know what an ‘sine die adjournment’ was if it hit them in the ‘S.Con.Res.’

Don’t cry over spilled milk, the expression goes. But you might cry over the explosion inside the dairy — er, House of Representatives, come January.

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