US Speaker Election: Kevin McCarthy Expected to Win Narrowly Despite Republican Infighting

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With the US House Speaker election set to take place on Tuesday, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is in the last-minute efforts to secure the support of the full roster of the Republican members of Congress.

The first session of the US Congress will convene on January 3 as per the long-held custom, and the Speaker election will take place on that day. The role of Speaker is extremely important and influential in the US as it is the third-highest ranking position after the president and vice president. The US House Speaker is expected to take on the powers of the president in the eventuality of either the president or the vice-president being unable to discharge the duties of the highest office in the land.

Kevin McCarthy
Kevin McCarthy, House Republican Leader Wikipedia Commons / Gage Skidmore

The Power Balance in Congress

McCarthy needs 218 votes to become the next US House Speaker as Democrat Nancy Pelosi stepped down after her party lost the majority in the 2022 mid-term elections. McCarthy was long seen as the presumptive Speaker should the Republicans obtain a majority in Congress but the party's poorer than expected showing in the mid-terms seriously dented his chances.

The Republicans have a razor-thin majority in the House with 222 members while the Democrats have 213 members. While nearly a dozen Republicans have raised strong objection to McCarthy becoming the Speaker, at least four have said they will not vote for him. This leaves the field too narrow for McCarthy as he needs to ensure that not more than four GoP members abstain from voting for him.

This looks unlikely at the moment as more GoP members have said they are still unsure if they will vote for McCarthy. Last-minute deal-making is progressing outside the Congress floor, ahead of the start of the morning session that will decide McCarthy's fate.

Why is McCarthy Being Opposed?

The Californian Congressman has been an unopposed front-runner for the post for long but the narrow Republican majority has turned the tables on him. The ultra right wing core of the Republican party, which is known as the Freedom Caucus, does not approve of him completely as they still see him as part of the Washington establishment. McCarthy has been trying to scrub that image off of him lately, but that's still a work in progress.

US Congress
US Congress Wikimedia Commons

McCarthy Makes Concessions

In the meantime, the opponents have already secured big concessions from McCarthy, like a promise to lower the threshold for a vote to remove the Speaker from office. Under pressure from the extreme Republican right wing, McCarthy has agreed to change rules so that a recall vote by as low as five Republican lawmakers will be enough to go for a party vote to remove him from office.

In another major concession, Mccarthy also agreed to dissolve the January 6 House Committee probing the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021. McCarthy also now supports the creation of a House panel that would probe if the Biden administration is weaponizing processes to target political opponents like former President Donald Trump.

What Works in Favor of Him

Though the Speaker election is going to the wire, most observers believe that McCarthy will scrape through at the end. However, he faces the serious chance of becoming the only Speaker candidate since 1923 to not win the election at the first ballot.

Given the current state of affairs, it is highly unlikely that McCarthy will win the 218 votes at the first ballot. At the same time, Washington and Republican insiders are not convinced that the rebels will go as far as to help the Democrat, Hakkim Jeffries, being elected as House Speaker.

The recalcitrant Congressmen are likely to hold off until the very end and squeeze more concessions from McCarthy before they cave in vote along party line to elect him the Speaker. Though a small number or extreme right wing Congress members oppose McCarthy, he has the backing of the wider right wing, and the crucial endorsement of former President Donald Trump.

This article was first published on January 3, 2023