Kevin McCarthy faces high-wire act as Republicans close in on U.S. House majority

WASHINGTON, Nov 15 (Reuters) – With Republicans closing in on a narrower-than-expected majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, their leader Kevin McCarthy took a step on Tuesday toward becoming House speaker, a job he has long coveted.

He can get another job too – tightrope walker.

McCarthy, 57, is the favorite to succeed fellow Californian Nancy Pelosi in January as House speaker — a job that carries plenty of clout and headaches. As speaker, McCarthy will be well placed to thwart Democratic President Joe Biden’s legislative ambitions.

McCarthy overcame a challenge from hardline conservative Representative Andy Biggs in Tuesday’s Republican House leadership election, winning the caucus vote by 188-31, according to sources familiar with the results.

McCarthy will only be officially elected as speaker when the new Congress takes office in January, assuming Republicans take the majority as expected.

Representative Steve Scalise, who was elected on Tuesday to become majority leader in the Republican-led House, dismissed suggestions McCarthy could face obstacles when the House elects a speaker in January.

“The election was intense. But we’re going to win the majority. And we talked a lot about what we will do to get this country back on track. And that’s where we focus,” Scalise told reporters.

But other Republicans said McCarthy could be in for a tumultuous journey to the speakership next year.

One of his most dedicated opponents, Representative Matt Gaetz, predicted that as many as five Republicans will be able to block McCarthy’s candidacy in a narrowly divided chamber.

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“It’s my hope that we’ll find someone in that room who doesn’t have five people who want to vote for him. But it’s not Kevin McCarthy,” Gaetz told reporters.

McCarthy has spent his adult life in politics – as a congressional staffer, then a state legislator before being elected to the House of Representatives in 2006.

Ascending to the speakership – the second in line of succession to the US presidency – would represent the pinnacle of McCarthy’s career, but it could be a precarious position. As speaker, he will have to manage a Republican House caucus that is moving to the right, with uncompromising tendencies and loyalty to former President Donald Trump.

“The House Republican leadership has very little margin for error. The House of Representatives will more closely resemble the Senate, where a handful of members can grind things to a halt very quickly,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “McCarthy is left with a more populist caucus that will likely push him to the right.”

With votes still being counted in several pivotal races a week after the midterm elections, Republicans look set to secure a razor-thin House majority. They are now still two seats away, according to Edison Research, from claiming control of the 435-seat chamber from the Democrats.

Republicans fell short of the “red wave” that some had predicted for a comfortable House majority and control of the Senate. Instead, Democrats retain their Senate majority, meaning the two parties must work together to pass legislation if Republicans do take the House.

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‘migraine headache’

House Republicans are increasingly embracing the right-wing populism and pugilistic style of Trump, who is expected to launch his 2024 presidential bid on Tuesday.

The powerful Republicans from the conservative House Freedom Caucus are demanding a rule change that would allow them to keep a tight rein on the leader and toss him more easily if they sour. The last two Republican House speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, came under varying degrees of pressure from the right flank of the Republican caucus.

“Kevin McCarthy is going to have a lot of migraine headaches,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “This is the first salvo, even before McCarthy becomes speaker — the first in what will likely be several high-profile negotiations over the next two years.”

As speaker, McCarthy was able to force a vote that focused attention on issues Republicans saw as beneficial to them – inflation, energy policy and crime – and launched investigations into the administration and the Biden family. McCarthy must also join his caucus to vote on pieces of legislation that must pass to keep the government open, fund the military and in 2023 address the fast-growing US debt ceiling.

Republicans are planning a raft of investigations into Biden and his administration, as well as US border security, immigration, China, the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden’s chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the FBI’s seizure of classified documents from Trump. Florida house.

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McCarthy was considered the favorite for speaker after Boehner announced his resignation from the post in 2015. But McCarthy backed down in the face of conservative opposition. Instead, the speaker went to a reluctant Ryan, who decided not to seek re-election to Congress in 2018.

The challenge by Biggs, one of a number of conservatives who blamed McCarthy for the Republicans’ poor performance in the midterms, showed the problems he could face in managing the conservative elements of his party. But McCarthy had the support of Jim Jordan, one of the most influential conservative voices in the House.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus want to restore the ability of any member to make a motion to remove a speaker. In 2015, such a motion — called a motion to vacate the seat — preceded Boehner’s resignation. The Freedom Caucus also wants the House to consider only legislation supported by the majority of Republicans and will have committee chairs chosen by committee members, instead of party leaders.

Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Jason Lange and Gram Slattery; Editing by Will Dunham, Scott Malone, Alistair Bell and Lincoln Feast.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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