House Republicans nominated Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to be Speaker in a closed-door conference meeting on Tuesday after he faced a last-minute protest challenge from Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a former chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
McCarthy won easily, 188 to 31, in the internal conference meeting. But in the eyes of Biggs and his supporters, the goal was merely to demonstrate that McCarthy lacks the support to seize the gavel when the full House meets to choose the Speaker early next year.
The 31 votes opposing McCarthy easily met that threshold, raising immediate questions about how McCarthy — who had failed to ascend to Speaker in 2015 — will make up the difference between now and then.
The secret-ballot House GOP Conference vote is just the first step for McCarthy to take hold of the gavel. He must win a majority in a public vote on the House floor – at least 218 votes, assuming a fully sworn-in House – on the first day of the next Congress on Jan. 3.
Tuesday’s vote comes as the final breakdown of House control remains unknown, with 14 House races undecided and election projections putting Republicans just one vote shy of securing the majority. The exact size of the slimmer-than-expected majority will have major implications for the rest of McCarthy’s path to the gavel.
Biggs launched a late challenge to McCarthy on Monday night, announcing on Newsmax that he would be an alternative in the Tuesday election.
At the meeting on Tuesday, Biggs was nominated by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), with Reps. Michael Cloud (R-Texas) and Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) seconding the nomination, according to a source in the room. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) gave a speech in support of McCarthy.
Earlier in the day, Biggs did not make a presentation at a House GOP leadership candidate forum – during which McCarthy got standing ovations.
“We have a new paradigm here, and I think the country wants a different direction from the House of Representatives,” Biggs said on Newsmax. He has previously expressed disappointment with McCarthy downplaying prospects of impeachment of Biden administration officials like Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
It is unclear how many Republicans would vote against McCarthy on the House floor on Jan. 3.
Conservatives say that McCarthy does not have 218 votes, but McCarthy’s allies project confidence that he will be Speaker. Biggs said on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast Tuesday that there are a “significant number of hard no’s” for McCarthy in the House GOP.
The Freedom Caucus is pushing for changes to internal conference rules that, on the whole, would chip away at leadership’s power and give more to individual members – a major dynamic at play in Biggs’s challenge to McCarthy. It is possible that granting some of those requests may influence those skeptical of McCarthy between now and Jan. 3.
“By December 16th, you’ll have a pretty good idea whether Mr. McCarthy is for the job,” Biggs said on Bannon’s “War Room” on Tuesday.
One of those requests is restoring any member’s ability to make a motion to vacate the chair, which would force a recall vote on the Speaker. Freedom Caucus co-founder and former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) made the motion in 2015, contributing to a rebellion that ended in former GOP Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) resigning from Congress later that year.
McCarthy is opposed to this change, arguing that it would give too much power to Democratic members.
The House GOP conference will vote on rules on Wednesday, much to the frustration of Freedom Caucus members who requested that a vote on the rules happen before leadership elections.
Not all members of the Freedom Caucus agree with the tactic of challenging McCarthy, however.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), once a doubter of McCarthy’s ability to become Speaker, has become one of his most vocal supporters for the post – as she hopes to secure favorable committee assignments in the next Congress. A slim majority, she fears, could cause moderate Republicans to join Democrats and elect a compromise moderate candidate.
“We have to like Kevin McCarthy,” Greene told reporters Monday. “I can’t support a challenge that will allow the Democrats to – to elect their own speaker by pulling some of ours.”
The Speakership has been a longtime goal for McCarthy, who has been active in Republican politics since his young adulthood.
“Can I be Speaker?” McCarthy said in jest to a member presiding over the House at one point during an overnight, record-breaking speech on the House floor last year, when he delayed passage of a major Democratic tax, climate, and spending bill.
After rising to minority leader in the California State Assembly, the Bakersfield, Calif. Republican was elected to the U.S. House in 2006, eventually rising through the leadership ranks from chief deputy whip to whip to majority leader.
But Biggs’s challenge is the latest chapter in the saga of McCarthy battling and wooing the House GOP’s right flank.
McCarthy’s first shot at the Speakership, when he was running to replace Boehner in 2015, was foiled by opposition from the Freedom Caucus. And in 2018, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), another member of the House Freedom Caucus, challenged him in the race for GOP leader.
But as the top House Republican for the last four years, McCarthy has given the right flank a seat at the table, unlike some of his leadership predecessors.
Jordan is set to become chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and is fully supporting McCarthy. Greene was invited to participate in McCarthy’s “Commitment to America” policy platform rollout in September.
And perhaps most notably, McCarthy quickly mended his relationship with former President Trump after saying that Trump bore responsibility for the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, traveling to Mar-a-Lago to meet with him weeks later.
Trump threw his support behind McCarthy for Speaker before last week’s election. McCarthy has not endorsed the former president running for a third time in 2024, which Trump is expected to announce Tuesday night.