“A book is being written about the Prime Minister’s time in office,” chided British Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer earlier this week. “Apparently it’s going to be out by Christmas. Is that the release date or the title?”
Starmer’s jab at British Prime Minister Liz Truss was way off. He picked the wrong holiday.
Truss didn’t even make it to Halloween.
After 44 days at Number 10 Downing Street, Truss’s tenure is the shortest of any modern British leader. George Canning served for only four months in 1827.
This brings us to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. McCarthy is line to become House Speaker next year if Republicans seize control of the House.
Republicans are now more united behind McCarthy than ever before. McCarthy stumbled badly in a 2015 bid to succeed former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. F. Scott Fitzgerald declared “there are no second acts in American lives.” But there are in politics. McCarthy has retrenched his image. Cozied up to former President Trump. Veered in the direction of ultra-conservative members of his party.
“We’ll win the majority and I’ll be Speaker,” pledged McCarthy to my colleague Rich Edson in August.
There have always been naysayers about McCarthy in the House Republican Conference. Fox is told that McCarthy holds around 217 votes right now for Speaker – right on the cusp. 218 is the magic number. McCarthy’s chances of becoming Speaker increase exponentially – hinging on Republican turnout. For instance, Fox is told that McCarthy’s “floor” for votes to become Speaker rises to 222 if Republicans over perform by one percent in turnout at the polls. McCarthy gets into the high 220s if GOP turnout jumps another percentage point.
“It’s not over until the votes are counted. But Kevin McCarthy is doing all the things that you have to do,” said Rep. French Hill, R-Ark.
Still, McCarthy’s grip on the Republican Conference could be tenuous.
“If his margin isn’t big enough, I think he’s going to struggle,” observed former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who unsuccessfully pursued the Speakership in 2015. “He’s one landmine away from just blowing himself up if you step on the wrong spot.”
McCarthy stepped on that landmine in the fall of 2015. McCarthy held the post of House Majority Leader when Boehner unexpectedly resigned. McCarthy was about to ascend to Speaker. But McCarthy gifted Republicans justification to vote against him during an appearance on Fox.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping,” said McCarthy at the time.
McCarthy brazenly conceded that Republicans constructed the Benghazi investigation solely to undercut Clinton in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes. Even if most Republicans embraced the approach, they didn’t want to say the quiet part out loud.
Questions also swirled around the Capitol about McCarthy’s personal life.
Some Republicans were looking for a reason to undermine McCarthy. McCarthy gave it to them on a platter with the Benghazi remark.
McCarthy extricated himself from the Speaker’s contest moments before the GOP Conference vote.
McCarthy’s rallied in recent years. McCarthy bolstered his image with rank-and-file Republicans, rushing to the side of former President Trump at Mar-a-Lago – just days after a screaming match in the middle of the Capitol riot. He’s courted controversial Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo. He’s promised Green and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., a return to committee assignments. McCarthy also bounced Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from her post as House Republican Conference Chairwoman.
But ironically, McCarthy could face the same problem he encountered seven years ago.
“Some Republicans will just look for a reason to get rid of him,” said one knowledgeable Republican source. “If he screws up, he’s in trouble.”
This is why McCarthy ingratiated himself with House Freedom Caucus and former rival, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. Jordan challenged McCarthy for the Minority Leader post in late 2018.
Conservatives will be looking for McCarthy to slip up.
How does McCarthy handle government spending? Does he balk at a spending bill to avert a shutdown this December while Democrats are still in charge? How does he address the debt ceiling? That’s a particular challenge. Fiscal hawks will insist on steep spending cuts. Yet many Republicans won’t want to touch entitlement or military funding. How will McCarthy finesse aid to Ukraine when some GOPers now reject further assistance? How robust are investigations into President Biden, Hunter Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Dr. Anthony Fauci? Does McCarthy greenlight an impeachment inquiry of the President, Mayorkas and Garland? And if he doesn’t will there be consequences?
Greene has already thrown down the gauntlet.
“He’s going to have to give me a lot of power and a lot of leeway,” said Greene to the New York Times. “And if he doesn’t, they’re going to be very unhappy about it.”
Greene contends her comments are “not in any way a threat at all. I just think that’s reality.”
However, both of Greene’s statements are true. That is the reality. A substantial number of GOP members and the Republican base expect an impeachment of Mr. Biden. And, it’s a threat. If McCarthy doesn’t perform, he could go the way of Liz Truss.
In the summer of 2015, House rules included a provision called a “motion to vacate the chair.” A lawmaker could call for a vote to declare the chair (the Speakership) vacant and potentially elect a new Speaker in the middle of the Congress. Former Trump Chief of Staff and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., engineered one such motion seven years ago. Meadows never followed through with his gambit. But Boehner knew he was toast and stepped down in the fall.
Democrats altered the “vacate the chair” provision when they seized control of the House in 2019.
The Freedom Caucus will be sure to extract a pound of flesh from McCarthy on a panoply of issues. But none more so than reinstituting some version of the motion to call a snap election for the Speakership.
“There are anarchists in the Republican Conference who don’t want anyone to be in charge,” said one House GOP source. “Arsonists.”
In other words, nothing will satisfy some Republican members. And if they have certain expectations of McCarthy….
This brings us back to Liz Truss.
“I recognize that given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative party,” said Truss.
If Republicans win control of the House, Republicans will likely choose McCarthy as House Speaker to “deliver the mandate on which” they elected him. Trouble arises if McCarthy falls short.
Don’t forget that former President Trump casts a long shadow over McCarthy. An annex to the Speaker’s office could well be found at Mar-a-Lago next year.
If not, McCarthy could fall into disfavor of Mr. Trump – much like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Chaffetz wonders if McCarthy is ready for the rough and tumble.
“Kevin McCarthy is like everybody’s friend. And he’s almost too nice of a guy,” said Chaffetz. “I think there will be a huge recognition that Kevin McCarthy did the most raising money. Going district by district to actually win back the House. It’s a matter of how big the margin is. You’ve got to be able to shut off some votes of people who will never vote for Kevin McCarthy. But you got to backfill that with people that will.”
If Republicans control the House, McCarthy likely ascends to the Speaker’s suite. But support for Boehner calcified after a few years. The same thing happened with former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. It’s unclear how long the honeymoon could last for McCarthy considering the restive nature of House Republicans.
Theodore Pomeroy of New York holds the record for the shortest Speakership in House history. The House elected Pomeroy to serve as Speaker for one day in 1869.
“The unanimity with which I have been chosen to preside for this brief period is evidence of itself that your choice carries with it no political significance,” said Pomeroy.
McCarthy won’t have to worry about anything after just one day in office – or even 44 like Liz Truss.
But if Republicans are in the majority, check back in with us at this point next fall.