McCarthy struggles to clinch support to be House speaker, with hours to go before crucial vote

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(WASHINGTON) — House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy is still struggling to clinch the necessary support to become the next speaker — less than a day before the new Congress convenes.

McCarthy, who has been the top House Republican since 2019, is backed by a majority of his conference, some of whom say no one else is better for the role. But his long-held aspirations to wield the gavel are being obstructed by a small group of Republicans who say they are intent on withholding their support in exchange for concessions that would limit a speaker’s power — and thus increase the influence of other members.

Five Republicans have outright said they won’t support McCarthy during the vote for speaker on Tuesday.

Nine others have said they remain unconvinced, even after McCarthy gave ground on some demands such as making it easier to remove a sitting speaker, sources told ABC News.

The Californian’s footing is weaker than his party expected after Republicans emerged from the midterm election with a 222-212 majority, with one vacancy. McCarthy must win the majority of representatives who cast a ballot for speaker on Tuesday, excluding those who vote “present.”

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Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., a McCarthy critic, told Fox News on Monday that he anticipates “10 to 15” Republicans will vote against McCarthy during the first ballot, a number he suggested could rise in subsequent rounds.

“I think you’ll see on the second ballot an increasing number of members vote for a true candidate who can represent the conservative center of the conference, can motivate the base,” Good said.

In a conference call on Sunday, McCarthy said he would support lowering the threshold to trigger a vote to oust a speaker, sources said. During the call, he said he would accept allowing just five members to bring what is known as a motion to vacate, a tool that was used to help oust then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in 2015. Current GOP rules require half of House Republicans to support such a move before a vote is held.

Also, a rules package Republicans released on Sunday details expanded oversight of the Biden administration, which is a major conservative priority. Under the rules, once adopted, the House will establish a select committee on the COVID-19 pandemic to investigate the virus’ origins, the government’s response, the development of vaccines and treatments and corresponding mandates for federal employees.

The rules package also includes language for the creation of a select panel under the House Judiciary Committee to focus on “strategic competition” between the U.S. and China’s government as well as the “weaponization of the federal government,” a seeming reference to Republican criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of some figures like Donald Trump.

Still, McCarthy doesn’t yet appear to have the necessary support. The five lawmakers who have vowed to vote against him showed no signs of budging as of Monday, and nine other Republicans released a letter suggesting his compromises didn’t go far enough.

“Despite some progress achieved, Mr. McCarthy’s statement comes almost impossibly late to address continued deficiencies ahead of the opening of the 118th Congress on January 3rd,” the group wrote in a letter obtained by ABC News.

While McCarthy may be able to garner more backing during a closed-door conference meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, shortly before the speaker vote begins at noon, his detractors are boasting that they’ll be able to muster the necessary opposition to block him.

“We may see the cherry blossoms bloom in Washington, D.C. before a Speaker is elected,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a McCarthy critic, has said.

Those opposed to McCarthy may be able to deny or delay him the speakership, but they are drastically outnumbered by Republicans who say they support him, including Trump and other prominent lawmakers.

The group of so-called “only Kevin” members have said they won’t consider voting for anyone else.

A drawn-out speakership vote would make some history — and be a repeat of McCarthy’s 2015 speakership bid, which was sunk when McCarthy realized he didn’t have the support of a small but necessary group of Republicans.

The last time it took more than one ballot to elect a speaker was exactly 100 years ago, when Fredrick Huntington Gillet won out after nine rounds of votes.

The House can conduct no other business until it has selected its speaker. Some who are backing McCarthy stress this point: that a prolonged or chaotic speaker vote prevents Republicans from governing and implementing what they campaigned on.

There have been rumors that Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., McCarthy No. 2 and one of his supporters, could ultimately run for speaker. Multiple sources told ABC News that Scalise would be open to a speakership run if McCarthy’s candidacy becomes nonviable and that some in the GOP minority opposed to McCarthy have made it known to Scalise that they would support him.

Among more centrist members, talk has continued of finding a compromise candidate with Democrats — a possibility Democratic leadership has played down — if McCarthy can’t corral the necessary support within his own party.

“I will support Kevin McCarthy, but if we do get to that point, I do want the country to work and we need to govern. We can’t sit neutral; we can’t have total gridlock for two years,” Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., told NBC News in November.

McCarthy is already residing in the speaker’s office on Capitol Hill as his party prepares to enter the majority. He was seen meeting there on Monday with some two dozen representatives, including those publicly opposed to him as speaker like Gaetz.

As Rep. Jordan walked into the McCarthy meeting he was asked if he would run for speaker if McCarthy couldn’t get the votes. “No,” he said. “I want to be chair of judiciary.” 

Asked by reporters earlier on Monday how he felt about the upcoming speaker vote, McCarthy replied: “Hope you all have a nice New Year’s.”

ABC News’ Lalee Ibssa contributed to this report.

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