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US lawmakers pick leader in high-wire political thriller

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The speakership bid has been a high-wire act for Republican Kevin McCarthy, who must keep his party's moderates united behind him while getting opponents on the right on his side./AFP
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Jan 03, 2023 - 08:57 AM

WASHINGTON — US Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was a simple up-or-down vote from realizing his dream of becoming one of the country’s top statesmen on Tuesday — in a cliffhanger worthy of TV drama “House of Cards” that could as easily end with his career in tatters.

The California congressman is vying for the speakership of the House of Representatives and needs a simple majority — 218 votes if every lawmaker shows up — as the lower chamber of Congress opens for the new term.

Having failed in a previous bid, McCarthy has long coveted the role of Washington’s top legislator, the parliamentary and political leader who presides over House business and is second in line to the presidency.

Yet in the best traditions of the political thriller, there will be intrigue until the credits roll, with the threadbare 222 Republican majority opening the path for a potential rearguard action from anti-McCarthy spoilers.

Six House Republicans — enough to keep McCarthy from securing the gavel — have come out against him, with three saying they are a firm “no” and the rest “almost certainly” opposed.

McCarthy withdrew from the speaker race in 2015 amid a number of blunders and a right-wing revolt.

In a sign of his continuing propensity to divide rather than unify, far right flamethrower Marjorie Taylor Greene and her normally close ally Matt Gaetz had dueling columns in the conservative Daily Caller before Christmas.

“Every single Republican in Congress knows that Kevin does not actually believe anything. He has no ideology,” Gaetz wrote.

Greene, who is believed to have been offered considerable influence in return for her backing, retorted that McCarthy’s opponents were lying “when they claim a consensus House Speaker candidate will emerge.”

Cloak and dagger 

If the 57-year-old former storekeeper falls short, the process continues to a second ballot, probably also on Tuesday, and McCarthy’s critics get the chance to put forward different candidates.

No credible alternative has been floated publicly, although the most obvious would be House Whip Steve Scalise, a loyal McCarthy deputy who has nevertheless been clear that he has ambitions of his own.

One roadblock to McCarthy’s anointment has been the perception among detractors on his party’s far right that he is insufficiently loyal to Republican former president and 2024 election candidate Donald Trump.

The California Republican has tried to ingratiate himself with the “Never Kevin” crowd, bowing to calls for intensive investigations of Democrats.

McCarthy, who defied a subpoena from the House panel probing the 2021 assault on the Capitol, has promised investigations of President Joe Biden’s family and administration, as well as of the FBI and CIA.

But the more he is seen as giving away the store to critics on the right, the more likely he is to alienate moderates, sparking open war between Senate and House Republicans, where there is already little love lost.

Several of the lawmakers withholding support from McCarthy said the House should block bills from Republican senators who voted for the $1.7 trillion government funding bill that passed before Christmas.

In a sign of the leverage they hold over him, McCarthy agreed, pledging that those bills would be “dead on arrival in the House” if he is speaker.

But he was largely ignored by the Senate leadership and much of the rank and file, as the bill passed by 68 votes to 29 — leaving his threat looking unsustainable.

Strategists expect fraught cloak-and-dagger talks between the two sides in the event of a McCarthy defeat that could see the emergence of a consensus Republican who can lock in 218 votes with some Democratic support.

There has been behind-the-scenes speculation about how long McCarthy might stay in Congress if he were to lose out again.

Allies point out that he would not be short of private-sector job offers.

But some Congress watchers believe the career politician has the place in his blood and would want to remain as a backbencher.

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