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  • Matthew Green

Is Kevin McCarthy in trouble?

Will Kevin McCarthy never wield the speaker’s gavel?

Back in 2015, when then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced his resignation from Congress, McCarthy – then House majority leader – was Boehner’s obvious successor. But after a brief run, the California congressman abruptly withdrew from the race, facing resistance from members of the House Freedom Caucus. (It also came after an odd letter from Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) asking candidates to withdraw if they had committed embarrassing “misdeeds.”)

Today, McCarthy is the top ranked leader of House Republicans. And though his party is in the minority, McCarthy clearly hopes that, if Republicans win control of the House in 2022, he will be elected the next Speaker of the House.

However, recent news reports suggest that support within the GOP for a McCarthy speakership is soft. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) remarked in a podcast interview with Matt Gaetz (R-FL) that “right now, from the people I talked to, he doesn’t have the votes.” She said that her vote would be contingent on punishing certain Republicans for disloyalty, like Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) and Liz Cheney (R-WY) (who serve on the January 6 committee) and Congressman John Katko (R-NY) (who voted for the recent infrastructure bill).

Other far-right members of the Conference, like Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Scott DesJarlis (R-TN), have said that their vote for speaker is contingent on whom Trump endorses. Meanwhile, one anonymous moderate Republican told CNN reporter Melanie Zanona that less conservative members of the party are increasingly upset at McCarthy for catering to the party’s rightward flank, warning that McCarthy “could have a bigger math problem with the moderates.”

These reports, allegations, and threats may make for clickable headlines. But they are not especially credible. Among the reasons why:

* They are no substitute for a whip count. “From the people I talked to” doesn’t mean much when it comes to counting votes in Congress, particularly votes for leadership positions. The only way to know whether McCarthy would lose an election for speaker is to conduct an actual whip count, preferably by lawmakers who have experience in counting votes. (Hint: Greene isn’t one of them.)

* Trump’s influence on the race for speaker will likely be negligible. Granted, there’s never been a former president like Donald Trump, who endorses Republican candidates for elected office with abandon and holds considerable sway over the GOP despite losing reelection. But there’s little evidence that former presidents can influence the selection of leaders in Congress. So Trump’s (non) endorsement of McCarthy isn’t likely to matter.

* Voting against your party’s nominee for speaker on the House floor risks giving the speakership to the other party. Lawmakers participate in two votes for the speakership: the first is for each party’s nominee for speaker, which takes place within the party, and the second is on the House floor, when all lawmakers participate. If enough members of the majority party refuse to vote for their party’s nominee on the floor, it is possible for the minority party to win the vote and thus select the next speaker. Do Greene, Boebert, DesJarlis, the anonymous moderate Republican, and the people Greene “talked to” really want to see a Democratic speaker in 2023?

* You can’t beat someone with no one. The history of Congress is full of examples of leadership candidates who faced opposition in their ranks but, because they were unchallenged (or faced very weak challengers), were nonetheless selected. If McCarthy’s skeptics don’t want to see a Democrat as speaker of a GOP-majority House, they’ll have to find an alternative candidate. Until they do, their threats mean little.

None of this is to say that McCarthy will have a smooth sailing to the speakership (assuming, of course, that Republicans win a majority in the House in the next election). McCarthy has taken these rumblings seriously. Perhaps too seriously: by speaking with Greene shortly after her podcast interview, McCarthy fueled further speculation that the congresswoman has veto power over his leadership ambitions. Nonetheless, claims of serious dissent against McCarthy within the Republican ranks are, for now, extremely premature.

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