Top US Republican Kevin McCarthy struggling to secure speakership amid hardline opposition

The new US Congress will open with Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy seeking political survival, potentially becoming the first presidential candidate in 100 years not to win initial support from his own colleagues.

Members of Congress will convene early Wednesday morning Australian time for a new era of divided government as Democrats relinquish control of the House after midterm election losses.

While the Senate remains in Democratic hands, House Republicans are eager to confront President Joe Biden’s agenda after two years of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

But first, House Republicans must elect a president.

Mr McCarthy – a Republican from California – is traditionally in line to replace Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but he heads into the vote with no guarantee of success, due to right-wing critics in his own ranks.

Despite attempts to cajole, harangue and win them over – even with the endorsement of former President Donald Trump – Mr McCarthy failed to garner enough votes to be certain of victory.

The situation could very well escalate into a protracted struggle on the House floor, a spectacle that would further divide the Republican Party and dominate the early days of the new Congress.

“It’s a lot bigger than about one person,” said Doug Heye, a former senior aide to the Republican leadership. “It’s about whether Republicans will be able to govern.”

A white man in a blue suit stands in front of a group of smiling people in suits at a press conference.
Kevin McCarthy with the House Republican leadership after the GOP’s midterm victories.(AP Photo: Jacquelyn Martin)

Ground combat would break convention

The first day of a new Congress is traditionally a day of celebration.

Families in tow, members prepare to be sworn into the House and Senate for the start of the two-year legislative session.

However, a new generation of Trump-aligned Republicans are leading opposition to Mr McCarthy on the grounds that he is neither conservative enough nor tough enough to fight the Democrats.

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It recalls the last time Republicans regained a majority in the House, after the 2010 midterm elections, when the Tea Party class ushered in a new era of tough politics, ultimately sending Speaker John Boehner to a early retirement.

Typically, it takes a majority of the 435 members of the House, 218 votes, to become the president. With a narrow majority of 222 seats, McCarthy can only afford a handful of detractors.

A speaker can win with less than 218 votes, as Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Boehner did, if some lawmakers are absent or simply vote present.

However, Mr McCarthy has failed to win over a core – and potentially growing – group of right-wing Republicans led by the conservative Freedom Caucus group, despite weeks of closed-door meetings and promised changes to House rules.

Nearly a dozen Republicans have publicly raised concerns about Mr. McCarthy.

“Kevin McCarthy doesn’t need 218 votes to be a speaker,” said Scott Perry, chairman of the GOP Freedom Caucus. “Unless something drastically changes, that’s where we’re going to be.”

Establishment members push back

The prospect of holdouts wreaking havoc from day one has led to a counteroffensive by Republicans who are frustrated that critics are threatening the workings of the new Congress.

A large but less vocal group of Mr McCarthy supporters have launched their own campaign – ‘Only Kevin’ – as a way to silence the opposition and pledge their support only to him.

A viable challenger for Mr McCarthy has yet to emerge.

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