If Republicans manage to retake control of the House of Representatives, they'll do so with a very narrow margin. That complicates Kevin McCarthy's quest to become the next Speaker, because he'll need the vote of nearly every GOP representative -- including the rebellious House Freedom Caucus.
It takes 218 members to control the House. As of one recent count, Republicans had won 209 seats and were leading in a dozen more. If that holds, they'll have 221.
The Speaker election works on the same math, with the winner requiring 218 votes from House members. Since no Democrat is going to vote for a Republican, that means McCarthy will have to win over nearly every GOP member. In a scenario where only 218 Republicans win their elections, every single one would hold a de facto veto over the party's choice.
McCarthy's momentum has been blunted by the disappointing midterm results. “We were told we were going to have an incredible, incredible wave,” Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs said on a talk show. “I don’t understand why [McCarthy's speakership] is just a foregone conclusion."
Though top House GOP brass is aligning behind McCarthy -- currently the Minority Leader -- other members both inside and outside of the Freedom Caucus are starting to rattle their sabers.
Freedom Caucus member Rep. Bob Good said McCarthy "has not done anything to earn my vote":
“There’s many times where we have come to the leader, the minority leader, over the last two years and asked him to fight on various opportunities and various issues, and I have not seen the demonstrated fight that we’re looking for. So I expect there will be a challenge to him as speaker candidate.”
“There’s not a soul in this town right now that has 218 votes.” said Texas Rep. Chip Roy. While that's vague, Politico observed that Roy agreed with a tweet from former Trump cabinet member Russ Vought calling for new leadership, and that "the House Freedom Caucus was made for this moment."
Conservatives will have a difficult (I would say impossible) time explaining a vote for McCarthy back home for many reasons, but mainly for being a peace-time leader when we are in a cold civil war who will manage the GOP away from conflict instead of seizing it by the throat 4/x— Russ Vought (@russvought) November 10, 2022
While he's not a Freedom Caucus member, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz on Thursday said McCarthy “is not my first choice and even quite frankly in my top 100." Gaetz said he perceives McCarthy as too close to Wall Street.
If nothing else, the Freedom Caucus and its 30-some members are poised to extract concessions from McCarthy on how the House would be run in the next session -- including making it easier to depose a sitting Speaker.
A House Freedom Caucus guide for new members of the House spells out the group's assessment of the current situation:
“The state of affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives has steadily deteriorated over recent decades — to the point at which the balance of power is so lopsided that members of Congress find themselves with no meaningful role in policymaking. … The result is the ‘People’s House’ serves almost everyone in Washington except the American People.”
That sentiment was echoed this week by the American Enterprise Institute's Kevin Kosar. "Getting a bill passed [has] devolved into a top-down exercise led by the Speaker, his leadership team, and the Rules Committee. They...craft bills, often omnibuses, and present them to the chamber for an up or down vote," he wrote at The Hill.
The Freedom Caucus is angling for a number of changes, including:
Broader membership in the group that doles out committee assignments
Allowing committee members to choose their own chairs
Allowing amendments from the floor
Being given five days to review legislation before voting on it
As of now, House Republicans are supposed to meet next week for a closed-door vote to nominate a speaker candidate, with the vote of the full house taking place in January when the next Congress convenes. South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman said he told McCarthy that he nomination meeting should be delayed.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that McCarthy is acting as if he'll be the next Speaker: "He sent a letter to U.S. Capitol officials Thursday telling them to plan to fully reopen the building next year and end Covid-19 related restrictions on visitors."
If McCarthy does win the speakership, life won't get any easier, as the same math will complicate his leadership of the House while empowering each individual member. As Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie told Politico:
“Look at what Joe Manchin has done in the Senate as the one deciding vote, right? I would love for the Massie caucus to be relevant. If there’s a one-seat majority, my caucus has one person. It’s me. So I can decide whether a bill passes or not... I’d be the wrong guy if you’re trying to find somebody who’s heartbroken that we don’t have a 40-seat majority.”