WASHINGTON - With control of the House and Senate still undecided, angry Republicans mounted public challenges to their leaders in both chambers Friday as they confronted the possibility of falling short of the majority, eager to drag Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) down from their top posts as consequence.
The narrowing path for Republican victory has stunned lawmakers from both parties, freezing plans for legislation and leadership maneuvers as they wait to see who takes control and learn the margins that will dictate which ideological factions wield power. Regardless of the outcome, the lack of a “red wave” marks a devastating outcome for Republicans, who believed they would cruise to a large governing majority in the House and possibly flip the Senate.
The GOP faces a small but real prospect that it may not reclaim the House majority despite high pre-election hopes based on the disapproval of President Biden, record inflation and traditional losses for the party that holds the White House. Late Friday, Democrats moved one Senate seat closer to retaining their majority in the chamber as Sen. Mark Kelly won reelection in Arizona. Winning either in Nevada - which was still counting votes - or in Georgia, where a runoff is set for Dec. 6, would allow them to stay in power.
House Democrats also were closely watching uncalled races in those states, as well races as Maine, Oregon, Washington and California, to determine whether they have a pathway to keep the majority. Even if they don’t, as many Democratic aides expect, there is a recognition from both parties that Democratic votes will be critical in a narrow House GOP majority.
“It’s an unworkable majority. Nothing meaningful will get passed,” a dejected aide to a senior House Republican said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss internal tensions.
Outgoing Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) told The Washington Post he knew the evening of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol that the GOP would have a difficult time proving to voters they should be in the majority in two years.
“By midnight on January 6, it was obvious that if we continued to sleepwalk down the path of crazy we’d face a rude awakening,” he said. “Instead of facing those facts, the GOP spent the last two years heading in the same direction and actively avoiding any internal reckoning. After Tuesday, we have no choice but to heed voters when they say that ‘the grass is green, the sky is blue, and by the way, you just got your ass handed to you.’ But waking up to that reality is going to be rough.”
House Republicans need to net only five seats to win back the majority, a seemingly easy goal that has proved surprisingly difficult. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which initially had projected winning as many as 30 seats, now sees their majority between 220 and 224 seats, according to three people familiar with the organization’s internal data. That sliver of control would hand GOP leaders what many see as the impossible task of corralling far-right-wing demands while balancing them with the desires of more moderate members.
The first hurdles for a slim House GOP majority are leadership elections and agreeing on conference rules, a showdown that is expected next week. The staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus is calling for a delay to those housekeeping efforts - especially if control of the House is not decided by then.
Members vying for leadership positions need to garner a plurality of votes behind closed doors Tuesday, a threshold McCarthy’s team and several GOP aides believe he will be able to cross to become speaker-in-waiting.
But his destiny is officially determined on Jan. 3, 2023, when he must garner 218 votes on the House floor to become speaker. Getting there has become much more perilous for McCarthy, as he has faced growing opposition from those on the far-right flank of the party.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) told reporters Thursday that McCarthy was not his first choice to lead the conference, echoing calls by Freedom Caucus members to bring forth a challenge to him. In a tweet Friday, Gaetz cited several perceived deficiencies with McCarthy, including his telling other GOP leaders that President Donald Trump should resign in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
The Freedom Caucus has long had a list of demands to make of whoever leads the conference, but many members acknowledged earlier this year that their effort to push leaders for concessions would be determined by the margins of a majority. McCarthy had already heard them out on several requests, including returning more legislative power to committees, ending proxy voting, and considering adding a number of Freedom Caucus members to coveted committee assignments, including the influential Steering Committee.
There are other outstanding requests that may appease some, but not all, within the group. Those include putting more members in committee chair positions and having McCarthy publicly back Rep. Jim Banks (Ind.), a staunch Trump ally, as majority whip. But as the expected majority grows slimmer, such demands could irritate more-moderate members, who also hold sway.
McCarthy’s team is confident he will be able to maintain support, citing how he has worked to create relationships with many of his detractors, including members of the Freedom Caucus. McCarthy is seen as open to conversations with his detractors but there are demands he is unlikely to bargain away, including changing the rules to make it much easier to remove the speaker from his or her post.
McCarthy left the Capitol on Friday evening without addressing questions from reporters about his negotiations.
Even if McCarthy exhausts all his bargaining chips, some Republicans acknowledge that the most-fringe members may still vote against him on the floor in January.
Rep. Chip Roy (Tex.) has said “no one currently has 218″ votes - the number needed to win the speakership in the full chamber. Moreover, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Rep. Ralph Norman (S.C.) have declined to say whether they would support McCarthy.
“There are people who swear upon firstborn children that they’ll never vote for McCarthy,” another aide to a senior Republican lawmaker said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to relay private conversations.
Jason Miller, a former Trump White House and campaign official, said Friday that if McCarthy “wants a chance of being speaker, he needs to be much more declarative of supporting President Trump.”
“It’s going to be a MAGA-centric caucus,” he said on Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast. “We need leadership to match.”
But without an alternative, McCarthy’s allies believe he may be able to hold on. The most credible potential alternatives, such as Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Banks, remain supportive of McCarthy.
Moreover, past speakers have benefited from missed attendance and members voting “present” to lower the majority threshold of 218 to help them clinch the top spot.
A senior Republican Party official, who criticized McCarthy for overhyping election expectations, said that a House Republican majority was a win at the end of the day - no matter the margin of victory. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations, added that the party doesn’t need McCarthy to govern an unruly House GOP conference majority or pass any legislation, but needs him to simply unite the conference as a firewall against the Biden administration’s agenda to be a successful speaker.
A group of Senate Republicans on Friday also called for a delay in GOP leadership elections after the party’s failure so far to claim the majority - a move that poses a direct challenge to McConnell.
Six senators - Marco Rubio (Fla.) Rick Scott (Fla.,) Josh Hawley (Mo.), Mike Lee (Utah), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Cynthia M. Lummis (Wyo.) - have called for delaying the vote, scheduled for Wednesday, in which McConnell was expected to be reelected in a secret ballot. Hawley suggested waiting until after the Dec. 6 Senate runoff in Georgia, a delay of weeks.
“Holding leadership elections without hearing from the candidates as to how they will perform their leadership duties and before we know whether we will be in the majority or even who all our members are violates the most basic principles of a democratic process,” Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Lee wrote in a letter they circulated to their GOP colleagues, according to Politico.
A Rubio adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the internal dynamics of the caucus, said Republicans are “frustrated” by their lackluster midterms performance, after they hoped to decisively win back the majority on Tuesday. Rubio, who won his race in Florida by a large margin, wants Senate Republicans to figure out “what in the world happened” before they elect their next leaders, the person said.
The Rubio adviser did not rule out that Rubio himself would seek a leadership spot, but said the senator’s focus was on getting Republicans to focus on their policy priorities before deciding who should lead them.
Rubio wrote on Twitter on Friday that the caucus needs someone “genuinely committed” to “fighting for the priorities & values of the working Americans (of every background) who gave us big wins in states like #Florida.”
Hawley quickly endorsed the idea, writing on Twitter, “I don’t know why Senate GOP would hold a leadership vote for the next Congress before this election is finished.” In addition to the Georgia runoff, ballots are still being counted in Arizona and Nevada.
Spokesmen for McConnell and Scott declined to comment. Email and telephone messages for Lee were not immediately returned.
The rebellion represents the most serious challenge to McConnell’s lengthy leadership tenure and comes after Republicans spent millions of dollars on losing Senate races in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, along with saving GOP candidates in Republican-leaning states like Ohio.
The Senate Leadership Fund PAC, closely associated with McConnell, spent more than $230 million this cycle backing Republicans in races across the country.
In the Senate, McConnell faced criticism from some Republicans in August when he played down the party’s chances of winning control, citing “candidate quality.”
Trump also has repeatedly mocked and criticized McConnell, while pressing Republicans to oust the GOP leader. McConnell recognized Biden’s win in December 2020, angering Trump, and then blamed the former president for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Leadership elections had been set for Wednesday and, so far, no Republican senator has formally announced they would run against McConnell. On Friday, Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), a close ally of McConnell, sent a message to senators directly saying elections are still on for Wednesday.
The Republican Senate leadership votes are done behind closed doors and by secret ballot. McConnell would need only a simple majority to win and he has said he has the votes he needs. If he does win, McConnell will surpass Mike Mansfield’s record for longest stint as party leader in the Senate.
In their letter, Scott and Lee also wrote, “We are all disappointed that a Red Wave failed to materialize, and there are multiple reasons it did not,” according to Politico. “We need to have serious discussions within our conference as to why and what we can do to improve our chances in 2024.”
In an interview published Friday, Hawley told RealClearPolitics, “I’m not going to support the current leadership in the party,” citing gun control and climate-change legislation. “We surrendered when we should’ve fought.”
The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and John Wagner contributed to this report.