McCarthy short of votes as House speaker contest enters final hours

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has already claimed the choicest piece of real estate on Capitol Hill, having moved into the speaker’s office just recently vacated by Democrat Nancy Pelosi. 

Unfortunately for McCarthy, Pelosi is not the one who signs the deed. That right belongs to the majority of lawmakers who will convene Tuesday at noon and vote for speaker. Additionally, with perhaps more than a dozen Republicans refusing to sign on, McCarthy can measure the drapes all he wants, but he does not hold title to the space.

Despite desperate last-minute efforts, including serving the entire caucus Chick-fil-A in the office he hopes will be his, McCarthy as of early Tuesday morning had not yet convinced enough of the holdouts to back him. If everyone is present, McCarthy will need 218 votes. Republicans will seat 222 lawmakers, so McCarthy can leave only four GOP minds unchanged. 

The conference will meet at 9:30 a.m., likely to hear McCarthy’s final appeal.

McCarthy has long been viewed with suspicion by some conservatives. It was members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who caused him to stand down in 2015, when he was expected to replace John Boehner as speaker. They viewed McCarthy as a politician whose heart belongs to the Washington establishment, the ruling elite who for decades have defied conservative efforts to stem the relentless expansion of the federal government. It is lawmakers from the same caucus who are literally barring the door to McCarthy’s ascension to power, despite years of effort by the Californian to prove he was one of them.

The course of events Tuesday could develop in a variety of ways, ranging anywhere from an orderly coronation, to a circus, to utter chaos. If the conservatives opposing McCarthy are bluffing and simply holding out until the last minute for all the concessions they can get, including the right of any single member to force a vote at any time to take down the speaker, then they will cave and McCarthy will glide to victory. Conversely, they could just make their point by denying him the speakership on the first ballot or two and cause some dyspepsia before relenting during a later ballot. 

Or, everything could fall apart. 

Some Republicans are threatening to join with Democrats if McCarthy does not prevail and elect a ‘moderate.’ McCarthy’s allies have held up the prospect of the Democratic candidate, Hakim Jeffries, sneaking in with a majority of the vote as Republicans devour their own. Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the House GOP’s second most powerful lawmaker, could emerge as a widely acceptable conservative alternative. However, he says he is supporting McCarthy, and some of the Californian’s backers say they will not support a ‘spite’ vote for Scalise. There is even talk of lawmakers trotting in someone from outside the House to seize the gavel, since the speaker does not have to be a lawmaker. But who could that possibly be?

Though he may face humiliating eviction from the speaker’s office, as an elected representative, one piece of real estate McCarthy cannot be forced from is the House floor. And there he pledges to remain for the minutes, hours or even days it could take to decide his fate.

Kelly Phares contributed to this report.

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