9 min read

“Groundhog Day, again”

Kevin McCarthy searches for a deal with his Republican adversaries as the House enters its third day of voting for a speaker.
“Groundhog Day, again”
Groundhog Day at the Capitol. (DALL-E)

Good morning! It’s Thursday, January 5, 2023. The 2024 elections are 670 days away.

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McCarthy, holdouts trade offers as seventh speaker vote nears

For the third consecutive day, the House of Representatives is without a speaker.

The House held three more ballots on Wednesday (its fourth, fifth, and sixth), each of which ended up the same way:

  • All 212 Democrats voted for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).
  • 201 Republicans voted for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
  • 20 Republicans voted for Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL).
  • 1 Republican voted “present,” which is akin to abstaining.

The only changes from Tuesday? The 20 lawmakers who had originally backed Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) all migrated to Donalds, a second-term member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, after Jordan swore off their support and reaffirmed his support for McCarthy.

And Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-IN) changed from voting for McCarthy to voting “present,” which meant the GOP leader ended the day with one fewer supporter than when he started.

“It’s Groundhog Day, again,” Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) joked as she nominated McCarthy for the sixth ballot, noting the seemingly endless nature of the repetitive voting.

Byron Donalds, the new candidate of the anti-McCarthy faction. (C-SPAN screengrab)

As always, then, the question is:

What happens now?

It may not seem like it from those roll call votes, but for the first time since the speaker impasse began, there actually has been some movement behind the scenes. The GOP leadership team launched into feverish negotiations with the holdouts last night, and reportedly caved in to some of their most ambitious demands.

Here are the new concessions McCarthy has agreed to, per CNN:

  • Lowering the threshold for the “motion to vacate” from five members to one. That means if only one Republican calls for a vote on ousting the speaker in the middle of the Congress, a new vote will take place.
  • Adding more Freedom Caucus members to the House Rules Committee. This may seem tedious, but the Rules Committee decides which bills go to the House floor and sets the amendment and debate process under which those bills will be considered. Adding more right-wing members to the powerful panel would give the caucus significantly more sway on the Hill.
  • Promising to vote on legislation that would set term limits for members of Congress and boost border security.
  • A commitment from his allied super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, not to spend money in Republican primaries in safe GOP districts without an incumbent running. This non-intervention pledge won McCarthy the support of Club for Growth, an influential conservative group which had previously opposed his speaker bid.

Each of these concessions have the same effect: Weakening McCarthy if he does become the speaker and strengthening the 20 Republicans who currently oppose him. McCarthy would be surrendering one of the speaker’s most significant sources of power: picking who serves on the Rules Committee, which normally gives the speaker full control over what ends up on the floor.

He would also be giving up his right to intervene in open GOP primaries in the most conservative districts, which would allow the Freedom Caucus to mold a Republican conference more in their image than his.

And, of course, if he ever makes one move the Freedom Caucus doesn’t like, he would be giving them the power to trigger a vote to fire him at any time, which would make his speakership constantly vulnerable to outside threats. But McCarthy is desperate for a deal.

Kevin McCarthy during the second day of voting on his speaker bid. (C-SPAN screengrab)

And yet...

It’s not clear if even those concessions will be enough. As with all of the other demands McCarthy has given into, he has yet to publicly flip a single member from “no” to “yes,” a major problem for him as the seventh ballot approaches at 12 p.m. Eastern Time.

On the first day of this mess, I wrote that there were two main factions of anti-McCarthy Republicans: a group of five led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and a group of nine led by Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX). The Roy group has been much more interested in dealmaking; the non-intervention pledge in primaries was one of their key remaining demands. This latest offer might be enough to win their support.

But the Gaetz group — the true “Never Kevins” — is far more dug in, showing little interest in negotiating even as McCarthy has conceded to most of what they’ve asked for. It’s not clear anything could win their support. But unfortunately for McCarthy, at least for now, they appear to have the votes to stop him by themselves, even if the Roy group gives in.

All that’s needed to keep McCarthy from the speakership, remember, is five Republican holdouts.

This puts McCarthy in an impossible position: negotiating with people who refuse to negotiate back — and who have little incentive to change course. McCarthy has tried to reprimand and isolate the Gaetz group, but they are already largely isolated from the rest of the conference. And appeals to good governance will fall flat every time: they may be bringing Congress to a halt, but they don’t seem to mind.

“The government isn’t spending money sending it to Ukraine so the American taxpayers are certainly winning,” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) said of the standstill on Fox News last night. Boebert wasn’t in the original Gaetz quintet but appears to have join the dug-in “Never Kevin” faction: “I will not withdraw,” she said in the same interview.

Former House speaker John Boehner (R-OH) referred to many of these same lawmakers as “legislative terrorists” for a reason.

Chip Roy, a McCarthy critic who has been engaged in negotiations with the GOP leader. (C-SPAN screengrab)

Facing the facts

Notably, McCarthy did win his first vote of the 118th Congress last night. No, it wasn’t a vote for speaker. It was a vote to go home for the night. After a chaotic roll call, the House narrowly voted 216-214 to adjourn. Four Republicans — Gaetz, Boebert, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), and Rep.-elect Eli Crane (R-AZ) — joined all Democrats in opposing the motion, a rough look at the true “Never Kevins.” (The motion would have failed if two absent Democrats had attended the vote.)

Although they voted for adjournment, Reps. Bob Good (R-VA), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), and Matt Rosendale (R-MT) are also members of the original quintet who appear unmoving in their opposition to McCarthy. “What do you need from Kevin McCarthy” to get to “yes,” Gaetz was asked on Wednesday. “For him to drop out of the race,” he maintained.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are growing restless. With negotiations picking up some steam, but still appearing far from a resolution, some Republicans have slowly gone public acknowledging that it might be time to start testing out other options. Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), a Freedom Caucus member who has backed McCarthy on each ballot, suggested Wednesday that McCarthy step aside in favor of his deputy, Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA).

An anonymous House Republican told CNN’s Jake Tapper that there were rumblings someone was planning to nominate Scalise last night if the House hadn’t voted to adjourn, suggesting that McCarthy may have been two Democratic absences away from his would-be speakership evaporating.

“The tough part is, I think, the number that will never vote for Kevin McCarthy is more than four,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-NC), another Freedom Caucus member, bluntly said this morning, a notable admission from someone who nominated McCarthy for one of yesterday’s ballots.

But those are the numbers, and GOP lawmakers are beginning to face them. For now, negotiations will continue as McCarthy searches for a way to flip the defectors. But with the seventh ballot looming, there might not be much time until the dam breaks and McCarthy’s own backers lose their patience.  

Matt Gaetz is a ringleader of a faction that may never be persuaded to vote McCarthy. (C-SPAN screengrab)

A few more notes and observations

The Trump factor. In a break with most GOP internal battles of the last six years, there largely isn’t one. After suggesting to NBC on Tuesday that he could pull his backing from McCarthy, the former president reiterated his support for the GOP leader in a Wednesday morning post on Truth Social. It didn’t move the needle one bit, even though the “Never Kevins” were some of Trump’s most ardent backers during his presidency.

  • “I think it actually needs to be reversed and the president needs to tell Kevin McCarthy you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw,” Boebert said Wednesday while nominating Donalds. “Sad!” Gaetz tweeted of Trump’s endorsement. It is hard to imagine right-wing lawmakers giving Trump that kind of cheek two years ago. It’s a sign of the ex-president’s diminishing influence on Capitol Hill, as the 2024 Republican primary beckons.

National security implications. As I’ve noted each day, House members can’t be sworn in without electing a speaker — which means we are entering Day Three without a functional House of Representatives. That comes with very real consequences: Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), for example, was supposed to meet with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a secure space Wednesday but was informed that he didn’t have the necessary clearance because he isn’t technically a congressman.

  • In fact, no members of the House Intelligence Committee have been able to receive classified briefings or documents since Tuesday. Any national security oversight that would normally come from the lower chamber of Congress has effectively been ground to a halt until the speaker impasse is broken.

➞ Camera angles. Have you noticed that we’ve been getting some fantastic images of House members on the floor lately, like the eyebrow-raising video of Matt Gaetz and AOC talking on the House floor or the photos peppered throughout today’s newsletter? There’s a reason. Normally, when the House is in session, C-SPAN is required to use the same fixed camera angles, which are dictated by the Office of the Speaker.

  • But there is no speaker, so there’s no one to tell C-SPAN where they have to point their cameras — which means the network is free to show members on the floor, giving Americans a rare glimpse at how lawmakers look and interact during a vote.

🚨 More news you should know

  • Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) announced this morning that she will not seek re-election in 2024, creating an instantly competitive open race in a key swing state. Stabenow has served in the upper chamber for more than 20 years. Read more
  • Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) will stay in the Senate instead of launching a run for governor that he had been considering. Read more
  • First Lady Jill Biden will undergo a procedure next week to remove a “small lesion” above her right eye that was found during a routine skin cancer screening. Read more
Debbie Stabenow will exit the Senate next year. (Lance Cheung / Agriculture Department)

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.

Executive Branch

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing, deliver remarks on border security, and hold a Cabinet meeting. Watch Biden’s border speech at 11:15 am... Watch the Cabinet meeting at 3 pm

Vice President Harris will attend Biden’s border speech and the Cabinet meeting.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre does not have a briefing scheduled.  

Legislative Branch

The Senate is out until January 23.

The House has the same schedule for the third day in a row: voting on a speaker until someone is elected. If a speaker is chosen, the chamber will then move to swearing in its members and voting on a rules package for the new Congress. Watch today’s session starting at 12 pm

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court is out until Friday.

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