Kevin McCarthy and his conservative opponents have reached a tentative breakthrough after a days-long standoff, giving the California Republican’s speaker bid a needed momentum boost.
Conservatives will get more time to look over the details after Republicans agreed to adjourn the House until noon on Friday. But it’s a sign of life for McCarthy, who has struggled to show public strength after three days of 11 speaker ballots that have seen him fail to flip any of his opponents.
Importantly, while it will get McCarthy closer, it is unlikely the agreement will be enough to get him the votes he needs to win the speakership. Twenty Republicans have been routinely opposing McCarthy on the floor, leaving him more than a dozen votes short of where he needs to be to win the House’s top gavel. McCarthy will need to flip most of those votes without alienating centrists and institutionalists, who worry that he is giving away too much.
The possible deal comes after several hours of negotiations with McCarthy’s detractors and less than a day after the GOP leader made an offer that conceded to basically all of their demands — including making it easier to boot a speaker.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), one of McCarthy’s opponents, said that there was a deal “on paper,” but cautioned that it was a first step.
“It’s changes that we wanted. Now we’ve got a lot more that we want to get to. This is round one. It’s on paper. Which is a good thing,” Norman said.
Other McCarthy opponents acknowledged significant progress, but were cagey about whether they had reached a final proposal for both sides to sign off on.
“A lot of good work has been done today. There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas).
Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.), asked if there was a deal, replied cryptically: “Very exciting.”
The sign of hope for McCarthy follows a third day of high-profile failed votes on the House floor.
There were few visible shifts over those many hours, as his opponents continued to break against him: While most started the day rallied behind Rep. Byron Donalds, by Thursday evening several had broken off to support Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), a name POLITICO previously reported as rippling amongst McCarthy’s defectors. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) also nominated former President Donald Trump.
But McCarthy spent Thursday’s votes huddling with some of his detractors. He was spotted chatting with Rep.-elect Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), two members who are so far opposing his bid. Clyde, asked afterward about the conversation, told a reporter that it was “none of your business.”
Meanwhile, GOP Whip Tom Emmer convened meetings in his office during the votes, including with Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), one of the no votes.
“This is the most hopeful set of conversations we’ve had in weeks,” McCarthy ally Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said, adding that the offer by leadership allies amounts to “clarifying what our intent is — and that enables trust, where some have had trust issues.”
Republicans are weighing trying to adjourn through Friday or the weekend as they face likely absences from their own members. And leadership is hoping that their nascent deal with conservatives will help corral support for taking that break.
The GOP is already missing one member: Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) missed the ninth ballot after traveling back to his home state for a “planned non-emergency medical procedure,” a spokesperson told POLITICO. Buck’s office said the lawmaker would be out the rest of Thursday and most of Friday.
The tentative breakthrough comes as McCarthy’s allies have spent most of Thursday trying to figure out if the glimmers of hope over the potential deal are just a mirage. In a slim majority, he can’t afford to alienate the other side of his conference, where centrists and institutionalists already have heartburn over the proffered deal.
“I want to see what those concessions are, line by line. And maybe name by name,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.)
“Frustrated? That’s mild,” he added.
And tensions remain sky-high among House Republicans on Thursday. During one meeting between McCarthy and Main Street Republicans, Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) told members that if anyone was wavering, they should “get out,” according to a member in the room who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity.
Johnson’s move was meant to ensure those who stayed were unified in backing McCarthy. No one left the room.
The offer McCarthy made to conservatives on Wednesday night includes items many in his conferences once viewed as red lines.
It would, according to two Republicans familiar with the proposal, include a vote on term limits for members, more seats for Freedom Caucus members on the powerful House Rules Committee, and allowing a single member to force a vote on ousting the speaker. That last item is a particularly steep climbdown for McCarthy — essentially guaranteeing that if he does land the gavel, it’s never fully safe.
Additionally, the conservative Club for Growth agreed Thursday to back McCarthy’s speaker bid pending the deal. That came after the McCarthy-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund reached a deal with the Club, which had initially signaled opposition to McCarthy, to stay out of open House primaries for safe Republican seats.
McCarthy’s camp is hoping that if they can winnow down his opposition from 20 to a half-dozen or so, the pressure on the remaining holdouts will be so great that enough would cave. McCarthy has also floated that if he can flip enough “no” votes into his column, he could convince others to vote “present,” helping him by lowering the number of total votes he needs to win.
But Republicans are also worried that a hardline group of their colleagues are essentially unwinnable. At the start of the day, a leadership aide said there are likely still five “hard nos” against McCarthy: Gaetz (Fla.), Boebert (Colo.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Bob Good (Va.) and Matt Rosendale (Mont.). McCarthy can only lose four GOP votes and still win the speakership, assuming full attendance.
“We need to get to a point where we evaluate what life after Kevin McCarthy looks like,” Boebert said as she nominated Hern on Thursday.
McCarthy allies are also worried about incoming Rep. Eli Crane (Ariz.). In a warning sign, Crane said on Thursday night that he was “not looking for a deal” and “leadership knows where I’m at.”
McCarthy’s camp also expects that he may eventually have to endorse conservatives for committee gavels, such as Rep. Andy Harris (Md.), who’s pushing to lead the Health and Human Services subcommittee on Appropriations, or Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), who’s gunning to lead the Homeland Security Committee. (Those decisions are subject to the approval of the GOP steering committee, though McCarthy’s influence is significant.)
If the negotiating gets that far, it’s bound to upset centrists and even some mainstream conservatives, who are likely to argue that McCarthy is rewarding bad behavior.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), for example, also wants the Homeland Security gavel.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), for one, called dropping the motion to vacate down to one member a “terrible decision,” but left the door open if it got McCarthy the speaker’s gavel.
“I don’t like it. I don’t want to vote for it. But I’m willing to discuss it,” said Bacon, while warning that setting it at one member could result in the step being taken “every week.”
Nicholas Wu, Katherine Tully-McManus, Meredith Lee Hill and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.