The speaker’s gavel now out of reach, Republican Kevin McCarthy is poised to take over the shrunken House GOP caucus in closed-door elections that will determine party leadership and set the tone for the new Congress.
The race for minority leader is McCarthy’s to lose Wednesday, but the Californian, who is an ally of President Donald Trump, must fend off a challenge from conservative Rep. Jim Jordan, who has support from the right flank and outside groups as a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus.
“We’ve got a plan,” McCarthy told reporters as he ducked into a closed-door meeting of House Republicans late Tuesday.
Trump has stayed largely on the sidelines ahead of elections that will determine party leadership not only for House Republicans, but also for Senate Democrats and Republicans. Voting for the biggest race, Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s bid to return as the Democrats’ nominee for speaker, is later this month.
At Tuesday’s meeting, McCarthy and Jordan encountered frustration, finger-pointing and questions as lawmakers sorted through an election defeat and began considering new leadership for the next congressional session.
Republicans complained about the unpopularity of the GOP tax law they blamed for losses in New York and other key states, some attendees told reporters after the meeting. Some in the meeting said Republicans should have tried harder to fulfill Trump’s priorities, like funding for the border wall with Mexico. They also warned that they need a new fundraising mechanism to compete with the small-dollar online donors that powered Democrats to victory.
“There’s a little rawness still,” Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who is running unopposed for a down-ballot position as vice chair of the GOP conference, told reporters outside the meeting room. “But there’s an opportunity for us to come together and get single-focused on the message.”
Jordan told reporters that he made a pitch to his colleagues at a sometimes-tense session in the Capitol basement focused on three questions: “Why’d we lose, how do we get it back and what we’re up against.” The former college wrestling champ said he told Republicans they need a fighter to confront Pelosi and her new majority.
“I think we’re entering a world we haven’t really seen,” Jordan said, rattling off the names of the Democratic chairmen who are poised to investigate Trump. “It’s going to take an attitude and an intensity about standing up for the truth and fighting.”
Most GOP lawmakers, though, prefer McCarthy’s more affable approach, and he remained favored to win Wednesday.
GOP Whip Steve Scalise, the Louisiana Republican who was gravely wounded in last year’s congressional baseball practice shooting and is running unopposed for another term in leadership, said McCarthy “knows what he needs to do” to win over his colleagues — and win back the majority — and is well-positioned to do both.
“You always look in the mirror and see what you can do better,” Scalise said as he entered the room. Republicans, he said, “need to do a better job of letting people know what we stand for.”
Rounding out the GOP leadership team will be Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who wants to bring a more aggressive stance to the GOP’s communications and messaging strategy in the No. 3 spot.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to win another term, but the most interesting race is down-ballot, where Republicans are poised to elect their first woman to leadership in almost a decade, as they try to smooth the optics of a GOP side that’s dominated by men.
Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer has made a bid for vice chair of the conference “to help bring our party’s big tent together.” She faces GOP Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa.
The rest of the GOP line-up is expected to shuffle slightly. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the GOP whip, is being forced out by term limits. That allows Sen. John Thune of South Dakota to move up to the No. 2 spot. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri take over the third- and fourth-ranking spots.
Senate Democrats are keeping their team headed by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, even though one of the two new Democratic senators-elect, Krysten Sinema of Arizona, has said she wouldn’t vote for him.
Newly elected lawmakers in the House and Senate will cast their first votes during closed-door meetings Wednesday even before they’re sworn into office as part of the new Congress in January.
Dan Meuser, a new Republican from Pennsylvania, said he’s talked with both McCarthy and Jordan in recent days about their plans for the new minority and has been giving his vote “a lot of thought.”
“I would say I have not made a decision yet,” said Meuser at freshman orientation. He said he’s “gotten close with Kevin McCarthy. I think very highly of him. I think he’s a very good conservative, he’s showed a lot of leadership. He’s certainly earned the position. On the same note, I think Jim Jordan’s a smart, tough, focused individual. So I respect him as well. So, yeah, we’ll see.”
McCarthy has been here before, and he’s making the case that he’s best suited to lead his party back to power. He played a similar role a decade ago, helping to recruit candidates after Democrats won control in 2006, leading to the tea party election that swept Republicans to power in 2010.
Most of those Republicans he ushered to office eight years ago are long gone, and now the House GOP’s leader will shepherd a more conservative caucus aligned with Trump and eager to confront Pelosi and Democrats.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said he told McCarthy this week he would be voting for Jordan. “I think it would be irresponsible of us to put the same people in leadership that put us in the minority,” he said.
And some just want to avoid more infighting as Republicans return to the minority for the first time in eight years
“Whoever loses needs to get behind whoever wins,” said Rep. Steve Palazzo, R-Miss.
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman and Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.
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