WASHINGTON — House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and his conservative detractors on Wednesday night worked toward a deal designed to flip some no votes to the yes column. But it appears unlikely such an agreement would deliver McCarthy the 218 votes he needs to win the speaker’s gavel.
A handful of hard-line conservatives, led by Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz, said they remained bent on derailing McCarthy’s bid for speaker. And because of the GOP’s new razor-thin majority, McCarthy can afford only four GOP defections on any speaker vote.
“If Kevin McCarthy doesn’t bow out, then he will have to live the entirety of his speakership in a straightjacket constructed by these rules that we’re working on now,” Gaetz said in a Fox News appearance Thursday night, nodding to efforts to water down McCarthy’s power.
“We have zero trust in Kevin McCarthy. … This is someone whose compass is like a wet finger in the wind,” Gaetz said.
Still, there were signs that McCarthy and leaders of the far-right Freedom Caucus were on the cusp of a breakthrough that could shake loose more votes for McCarthy — and shift momentum in his favor.
“I felt very positive yesterday. I feel more positive today,” McCarthy said as he left the Capitol for the night.
The House came back into session at noon ET on Friday and began its 12th vote for speaker.
McCarthy held a conference call with Republican members Friday morning before votes began to discuss the situation. He and his team laid out “parameters of a deal,” one Republican in the meeting told NBC News. “But no true deal yet.”
McCarthy expressed optimism but made clear he didn’t have the votes yet, according to more than six people on the call.
“I’m not telling you we have an agreement,” McCarthy said at one point, according to two people. “We’re in a good position and having meetings.”
Over the last three days, McCarthy was defeated on 11 consecutive ballots as a band of roughly 20 conservatives held the line against him — a stinging public rebuke for the normally upbeat Californian.
But as Thursday’s failed roll calls were broadcast on national TV, negotiators privately huddled one floor below, hammering out the contours of a deal on a package of rules changes and prized slots on key committees. That includes giving a single lawmaker the power to force a vote to oust a sitting speaker in the middle of the term; previously, McCarthy had agreed that at least five members would be needed to make a “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair.
The emerging agreement also would give Freedom Caucus members seats on rules and other influential committees. Negotiators said completing a deal with the conservative group, chaired by Scott Perry, R-Pa., would get McCarthy close to the finish line.
“You never eat a sandwich in one gulp. It does take a number of bites,” Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., a McCarthy loyalist and the new chairman of the Republican Main Street Caucus, said in an interview. “If things come together, like it looks like it might, then this would be a major bite out of this sandwich.”
“Once you get the sandwich down to a smaller size, it gets frankly a lot easier to figure out how to finish it,” he said.
Leaving the talks, happening in Majority Whip Tom Emmer’s first-floor office, members of the Freedom Caucus refused to show their cards and did not say whether a deal had been reached.
“We’ll see,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, one of the 20 defectors, when asked if McCarthy will be speaker. “We’re still working through everything. It doesn’t do any good to debate this stuff in the public.”
“We’re evaluating and working,” Perry added.
One wild card: potential absences if the speaker vote drags on much longer. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., missed some votes on Thursday due to a reported medical appointment back home. There will be illnesses, funerals, family trips and babies born that could cause lawmakers to skip votes and alter the speaker math equation.
Democratic leaders, however, are whipping hard to keep their troops in line and ensure any absences on their side of the aisle don’t inadvertently give McCarthy extra breathing room.
Just to be sure of that, Gaetz was spotted several times on the House floor Thursday checking in with top Democrats, including Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado and Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington, about whether they were expecting any absences.
It’s an unlikely alliance.
“My conversations with Democrats have largely been about making sure that they don’t leave the floor for dinner or fundraisers or whatnot,” Gaetz told Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “We need them to stay there so that the denominator in the equation on the election of a speaker allows us to have leverage.”
“I wanted to make sure people stayed on the floor.”
McCarthy allies are vowing to stick with their candidate no matter how long it takes.
“If it takes till tomorrow, it takes till tomorrow; if it takes till the 4th of July, it takes till the 4th of July,” said Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., the new chief deputy whip and No. 2 vote counter. “Kevin will be speaker.”
Haley Talbot, Kate Santaliz, Liz Brown-Kaiser, Julie Tsirkin, Olympia Sonnier, Gary Grumbach , Julia Jester and Kyle Stewart contributed.