Just before Christmas the top Republican in the US House of Representatives condemned a $1.7 trillion omnibus government funding Bill as “a monstrosity”.
Kevin McCarthy said the measure was shameful and contained funding for various “left-wing pet projects”.
The Bill was strongly opposed by right-wing Republicans whose support McCarthy needs if he is to achieve his long-time ambition of becoming the speaker of the House when the new US Congress meets on Tuesday.
Crucially, a small but significant number of these have indicated they will not back McCarthy in his bid to obtain the speaker’s gavel.
Several hardline conservatives believe McCarthy has not done enough to push back against Democrats and the administration of president Joe Biden.
Democrats said McCarthy was seeking to curry favour with the party’s right wing in his trenchant opposition to the government funding bill. The chairman of the House rules committee, Jim McGovern, a Democrat, said: “After listening to that, it is clear he does not have the votes yet.”
McGovern’s comments fed into a narrative promoted by Democrats and some in the US media that McCarthy would do or say anything to fulfil his dream of becoming speaker.
The speaker of the House of Representatives is one of the top political offices in the United States. It stands directly behind the vice-president in the line of succession to the White House.
And McCarthy has been close before to securing the role. In 2015 it seemed he would become speaker after Republican John Boehner resigned. But at that time he also faced opposition from the right of his party, and the role ultimately went to Paul Ryan.
McCarthy’s critics maintain that while he did initially criticise Donald Trump over the violent attack on the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021, within a few weeks he had travelled to the former president’s home in Florida to make peace.
“The president bears responsibility for [the] attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said on the House floor in January 2021. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
McCarthy, however, later opposed the setting up of an independent commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol and refused to co-operate with the House select committee that was established as a fallback. He did not voluntarily provide information regarding contacts with Trump on January 6th and ignored a subpoena.
McCarthy’s difficulty in securing the speakership is compounded by the small Republican majority in the new House of Representatives.
After the midterm elections in which Republicans fared worse than had been anticipated against a backdrop of a Democratic president with weak poll numbers and a cost-of-living crisis, the party will have a slender 222 to 212 majority.
This all leaves McCarthy with little breathing space, as he can afford to lose the votes of only four Republicans.
Until last weekend, more than four had publicly voiced their opposition to him becoming speaker. In private the numbers could be larger.
In November, in a secret internal Republican ballot on who to nominate as speaker, 31 members of the House voted against McCarthy.
In the intervening weeks he has been working hard to secure the votes. He has the backing of Trump and also has the support of some right-wing members of the House such as Marjorie Taylor Greene. At the same time other strong allies of the former president are among McCarthy’s biggest critics.
Another difficulty for McCarthy is that some of his opponents are not making traditional political demands such as more investment for their constituencies. Rather, some right-wing members want to focus on obstructing the Biden administration or reducing the size of the federal government.
To outsiders some demands may seem arcane. A significant issue is the restoration of a member’s ability to put forward a procedural motion “to vacate the chair” – a move to force a vote on removing the speaker.
McCarthy’s supporters had opposed such a development on the grounds that it would leave the speaker as a hostage to more extreme elements. However, at the weekend McCarthy reportedly offered some concessions including allowing for motions to vacate the chair if supported by five Republican members.
The vote for speaker will be the first item for the new House of Representatives on Tuesday.
While McCarthy needs 218 votes to be sure of victory, he could still become speaker with a smaller number if some of his critics abstain.
If McCarthy does not secure sufficient votes to become speaker immediately, members of the House would move to hold a second ballot – likely accompanied by fevered behind-the-scenes horse trading. The last time this happened was in 1923 when it took nine ballots to elect the speaker.
If an impasse continues, others could throw their hat into the ring or moves could be made to change the rules for the election of the speaker.
Whatever happens in the vote for speaker, the new Congress will see Republicans in charge of the House for the first time since 2018. The Senate will remain in Democrat hands.
The changeover will undoubtedly present problems for the White House, which will face much greater political oversight.
Republicans seem certain to launch investigations into issues such as the business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of the president, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There will be new legislation to rescind funding to boost the US internal revenue authorities, which Republicans say would recruit 87,000 staff to target middle income families.
Republicans are also likely to seek to make permanent a provision in place for decades, known as the Hyde amendment, which banned federal funding for most abortions.
McCarthy, or whoever turns out be the Republican leader, will also face a significant internal issue regarding the growing controversy over George Santos, who was elected for a constituency in New York in November. Santos, who has backed McCarthy for speaker, is facing strong calls for him to resign after it emerged that large parts of his curriculum vitae, on which he was elected, were made up, including details about his education and where he had worked.