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 to become president of the Chamber, a job he had long coveted.

He can also get another tough job: tightrope walker.

McCarthy, 57, is the presumptive favorite to replace fellow Californian Nancy Pelosi in January as speaker of the House, a job with a lot of influence and a lot of headaches. As speaker, McCarthy would be well-positioned to thwart Democratic President Joe Biden’s legislative ambitions.

McCarthy fended off a challenge from hardline conservative Rep. Andy Biggs in Tuesday’s Republican House leadership election, winning a caucus vote 188-31, according to a source with knowledge of the outcome.

McCarthy would only be formally elected president when the new Congress takes office in January, assuming Republicans take the majority as expected.

Representative Steve Scalise, who was elected Tuesday to serve as majority leader in a Republican-led House, shrugged off suggestions that McCarthy could face obstacles when the House votes for president in January.

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

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

One of his staunchest opponents, Representative Matt Gaetz, predicted that only five Republicans would be able to block McCarthy’s nomination in a closely divided chamber.

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“My expectation is that we’re going to find someone in this room who doesn’t have five people who want to vote against him. But it’s not going to be 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 in 2006.

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

“The Republican leadership in the House has a lot less room for error. The House will be more like the Senate, where a handful of members can stop things very quickly,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “McCarthy is left with a more populist caucus that will likely push him further to the right.”

With votes still being counted in some crucial races a week after the midterm elections, Republicans appear poised to hold a very slim majority in the House. They are currently still two seats away, according to Edison Research, from reclaiming control of the 435-seat chamber from Democrats.

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

Hard-line Republicans in the conservative House Freedom Caucus are calling for changes to the rules that would allow them to keep their leader’s reins and more easily remove him if they add him. The last two speakers of the Republican House, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, suffered varying degrees of pressure from the right wing 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 gets to become speaker, the first in what will likely be a series of high-profile negotiations over the next two years.”

As speaker, McCarthy could force votes to focus on issues Republicans see as advantageous to them — inflation, energy policy and crime — and launch investigations into the Biden administration and family. McCarthy should also rally his caucus to vote on mandatory laws to keep the government open, fund the military and in 2023 address the fast-approaching US debt ceiling.

Republicans are contemplating a series 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 US troops from the ‘Afghanistan and the FBI’s seizure of classified Trump documents. Florida house

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

The challenge from Biggs, one of the conservatives who blame McCarthy for the Republicans’ disappointing performance in the midterms, was indicative of the problems he may face in managing the more conservative elements of his party. But McCarthy has 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 the speaker. In 2015, such a motion — called a motion to vacate the chair — preceded Boehner’s resignation. The Freedom Caucus also wants the House to consider only legislation supported by a majority of Republicans and would have committee chairs selected by committee members, rather than 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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