Frustration and anxiety are bubbling up among House Republicans over opposition to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for Speaker from a small group of hard-line conservative GOP members that threatens to keep him from the gavel.

McCarthy allies lined up at the mics to voice support for him at an internal House Republican Conference meeting on Tuesday. And they are starting to trade barbs with the McCarthy opponents: “We’re not going to be held hostage,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said.

Both the Republican Governance Group, a caucus of more center-leaning members formerly known as the Tuesday Group, and the Main Street Caucus, a group of pragmatic governance-minded Republicans, have released letters in recent days urging their House Republican colleagues to support McCarthy. The former group urged Republicans to “put posturing aside.”

“This Conference cannot handcuff itself to a burning building before we gavel in the 118th Congress,” Republican Governance Group Chairman Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

Five vocal House Republicans explicitly have said or strongly indicated they will not support McCarthy for Speaker in a Jan. 3 floor vote: Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Ralph Norman (S.C.), Matt Rosendale (Mont.) and Bob Good (Va.). Several others, including House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry (Pa.) and Rep. Chip Roy (Texas), have criticized current leadership’s position on rules change proposals that would empower individual members, but are not revealing how they plan to vote on Jan. 3.

With Republicans heading into the 118th congressional session with a slim majority of 222 to Democrats’ 212 and one vacancy, their opposition has the potential to keep McCarthy from getting the Speakership.

Some House Republicans supportive of McCarthy, though, are downplaying the opposition, brushing it off as saber-rattling and predicting opponents will eventually fall in line. McCarthy, they note, won support from nearly 85 percent of the House Republican Conference for the Speakership nomination over a last-minute challenge from Biggs, a former chair of the Freedom Caucus.

“It’s a done deal. I think this is all theatrics,” said Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas), quipping: “Imagine a place like this having theatrics right before a major vote.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks during a ceremony on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, to present Congressional Gold Medals to police officers who served during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

“He’s going to be the next Speaker of the House,” said Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.) “We had the same conversation two years ago with [Democratic House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. I saw her work the House floor to become Speaker. I saw members of her team vote present, you know, so they could reduce the percentage, and so I don’t think this is out of the ordinary.”

McCarthy needs support from a majority of those voting for a Speaker candidate on the floor on Jan. 3, not including vacancies, absences or “present” votes, which would lower the threshold needed to win the Speakership election. But the five most vocal opponents to McCarthy all say they will not vote “present,” further depriving McCarthy of breathing room.

GOP makes a backup plan

The situation is starting to spur talk of contingency plans about what to do if McCarthy fails to secure the Speakership after multiple ballots — and the potential to work with moderate Democrats to select an alternative GOP Speaker.

“We’ve had preliminary talks up with the Democrats,” Bacon said. “If we have multiple, multiple votes, and they’re not willing to support what the far majority of the conference wants to do, we’re not going to be held hostage by them.”

Bacon later added on C-SPAN that he does think McCarthy will ultimately be elected Speaker and that he will support McCarthy as long as he “stays in the fight.” But he does have “a few names” of possible alternatives, he said, without revealing names.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is set to chair the House Judiciary Committee in a GOP majority, told Breitbart over the weekend that he is “concerned” about Republicans striking a deal with Democrats to elect an alternative to McCarthy.

“So let’s hope that there’s never any kind of bargain where you bring the Democrats into play because they’ll be … trying to stop investigations that are our constitutional duty to conduct,” Jordan said. 

As some members urge support for McCarthy, his opponents are digging into their position rather than relenting.

In a Billings Gazette op-ed on Wednesday, Rosendale escalated his opposition to McCarthy, leaving little room for the possibility of supporting McCarthy on the House floor.

“If Kevin McCarthy couldn’t lead in the minority, he doesn’t have the ability to serve as speaker of the House,” Rosendale wrote.

On Tuesday, Biggs renewed his challenge to McCarthy as a candidate for Speaker. His office told The Hill that despite the tweet and op-ed, though, he is still open to and interested in an alternative Speaker candidate.

A lack of a consensus alternative is a major selling point for McCarthy advocates. A report that some Democrats floated outgoing moderate Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) as a possible Speaker prompted a rebuke from former President Trump – who backed McCarthy for Speaker before the election. Upton voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.

Meanwhile, McCarthy is reiterating and escalating some of his pledges for the House Speakership and taking a more hard-line style in the kinds of negotiations on must-pass spending bills that normally animate his critics.

On Fox News on Monday, McCarthy said that Republicans — namely Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), a figure frequently criticized by hard-liners — should “wait till we’re in charge” of the House in the next Congress to pass an omnibus spending bill. 

And he took a victory lap following the release of final National Defense Authorization Act text on Tuesday that eliminated the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for service members. 

“Last week I told Biden directly: it’s time to end your COVID vaccine mandate on our military and rehire our service members,” McCarthy said in a statement.