Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is battling a handful of disgruntled conservatives who want someone else to govern their tiny House majority in 2023, and his refusal to cut a deal with the group is putting his quest for the speaker’s gavel in jeopardy.
Five Republicans said they would refuse to vote for Mr. McCarthy, and their number is just big enough to sink his election on Jan. 3 when Democrats and Republicans vote for the speaker.
The “fed-up five” are backed by the Freedom Caucus, which wants significant changes in the House rules to restore more power to rank-and-file lawmakers and put an end to runaway government spending.
Mr. McCarthy, 57, has shown little enthusiasm for the rules changes that the group is seeking. Among them are the restoration of a floor motion that would make it easier to remove the House speaker and another that would prohibit large, combined spending packages that Congress has enacted nearly every year for two decades to fund the government.
Rep. Andy Biggs, Arizona Republican, and at least two others who oppose Mr. McCarthy say nothing can change their decision to vote against him. Two other Republicans said they might be open to voting for Mr. McCarthy if he agrees to the House rules changes.
In addition to Mr. Biggs, the five are Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Matthew M. Rosendale of Montana and Bob Good of Virginia.
The lawmakers say they are fed up with Mr. McCarthy in part because Republicans fell far short of winning dozens more seats on Election Day than polls predicted.
Mr. McCarthy also refuses to get on board with some of the more conservative proposals to cut spending, including raising the retirement age.
The group also wants a speaker who will more aggressively seek the removal of top Biden administration officials despised by the right, including Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Although several House races remain undetermined, Republicans are expected to control 222 seats, which would give Mr. McCarthy a four-seat majority and few votes to spare when he runs for speaker. He will need to win a majority of all votes cast on the House floor.
“Kevin McCarthy doesn’t have 218 votes, and he’s still well short of that,” Matt Tragesser, a spokesman for Mr. Biggs, told The Washington Times.
Mr. Biggs ran for speaker against Mr. McCarthy in a closed-door Republican election this month and picked up 31 votes. Mr. McCarthy lost 36 votes overall, although the number of defections is likely to shrink by Jan. 3.
House Republicans will vote this week in a closed-door meeting on all proposed rule changes for the next Congress, including those sought by the Freedom Caucus.
The Freedom Caucus list includes reinstating the ban on spending earmarks, ending “same day” consideration of bills and requiring at least five days for lawmakers to read legislation before voting, and restoring targeted spending cuts that would allow Congress to cut money from programs or the salaries of federal employees they oppose.
“If McCarthy wants to be speaker, he needs to work with the Freedom Caucus to make sure that those changes are not only considered but also implemented,” Cesar Ybarra, vice president of policy at the conservative group FreedomWorks, told The Times. “A lot of members of the House Republican Conference will follow McCarthy’s lead if he’s able to broker a deal with the House Freedom Caucus.”
Mr. McCarthy is concerned that making concessions would empower Mr. Biggs and the rest of the small group of Republicans who oppose him to issue more demands, according to sources with knowledge of Mr. McCarthy’s thinking.
Republicans seeking changes to the House rules point out that past speakers have often negotiated with rank-and-file members to get votes in the speaker’s election on the opening day of Congress.
“If McCarthy is smart,” one Republican source said, “he would know that this is the kind of risk he runs if he doesn’t accept some of these demands for changes. The writing’s kind of on the wall there.”
Mr. McCarthy can pull off a win without the five Republicans if some of them vote “present,” which would lower the number of lawmakers who make up a majority in the chamber under the House rules.
“That certainly is a possibility,” Mr. Tragesser said, “but it would certainly be frowned upon, and it has not been done historically at a level like this.”