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Kevin McCarthy has long wanted to be speaker of the House. Now he faces his moment of truth.

Representative Kevin McCarthy, watching midterm election results from the Madison Hotel in Washington in November.Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Just past noon on a warm Thursday in October 2015, Representative Kevin McCarthy walked into a closed-door meeting of House Republicans.

With reporters and cameras lining the hallways of the stately office building, most everyone expected him to walk out as the conference’s choice to be the next House speaker.

Instead, bedlam erupted within 20 minutes, as McCarthy stunned the gathered lawmakers and press by announcing to his colleagues, “I am not the one.”

The California Republican, now the Republican leader, has been working in the years since that day to finally claim the gavel he has long sought.


On Tuesday, he will have his chance. And no one knows if he’ll succeed.

“He’s just going to have to put his asbestos britches on and jump in the fire,” said former representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, who once served as a liaison between GOP leadership and conservatives.

McCarthy enters the first day of the 118th Congress in a stare-down with a handful of detractors who have pledged not to vote for his speakership. Although he has the support of the vast majority of his peers and has already moved into the spacious speaker’s offices, McCarthy can’t secure the position until a vote on the floor of the House.

It’s a test that could determine whether McCarthy will finally be taken seriously as a key player in Washington instead of being dismissed as an irrelevant Trump yes-man by rivals, or whether his dreams erupt in flames once more. And even if he succeeds, it may be a pyrrhic victory, as the concessions it may take to win undercut his power.

He must get a majority of those voting to be speaker — 218 if every member is present and casts a vote. With a majority of 222 Republicans, that means he can lose four colleagues and still hit the magic number.


Five members of his own party have publicly vowed to oppose him, and several more have made demands that they so far say are unmet, which in the present count would block his bid.

McCarthy, meanwhile, has pledged to go through as many floor votes as necessary to win, potentially plunging the institution into chaos. Electing a speaker is the first order of business to constitute the new House — nothing else can proceed until the task is done. No speaker vote has required multiple ballots in the last 100 years. No Democrats will vote for him, and they’ll likely relish watching Republicans try to scrounge together the votes.

Other speakers have faced similar challenges, including outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2018, when she faced a rebellion led in part by Salem Democratic Representative Seth Moulton. Pelosi, widely considered one of the most skilled party leaders in history, had a larger majority to work with and picked off detractors one by one with promises and deals, including the one that presaged her retirement from leadership at the end of last year.

McCarthy has spent weeks attempting to negotiate with his detractors, including presenting a package of proposed rules to the GOP conference on Sunday that made numerous concessions he had sought to avoid. One of the biggest: reinstating a procedural maneuver that allows rank-and-file lawmakers to call a vote of confidence on the speaker that had been effectively removed by Democrats in 2019. If it cements McCarthy’s speakership, restoring that motion “puts a gun to his head” for the duration of it, Brendan Buck, a former aide to two GOP speakers, said Monday on MSNBC.


At least four of his five detractors on Monday publicly stated they haven’t changed their minds. And nine other lawmakers signed a letter Sunday night arguing McCarthy’s proposals were not enough. McCarthy was expected to attempt to strike deals, even through the floor votes as necessary.

“Nothing changes when nothing changes, and that must start from the top. Time to make the change or get out of the way,” Pennsylvania Representative Scott Perry tweeted.

It’s unclear what McCarthy’s opponents want, other than his discomfort.

“It makes it really tough to negotiate with people who frankly aren’t acting in good faith,” Buck said. “They don’t really want to come to the table, their goal is to go to the floor and defeat him and then negotiate.”

Westmoreland, the former Georgia congressman, said he thinks the anti-McCarthy faction is doing what they believe is best and wanted by their constituents, but that McCarthy has proven himself with hefty fund-raising, candidate recruitment, and his concessions so far.

“I don’t know what else Kevin really could have done,” Westmoreland said.

McCarthy has long faced skeptics among his party’s more conservative flank, many of whom have actively fought with every GOP leader and have insisted on purist ideological stances that have either caused government shutdowns or forced their leadership to cut deals with Democrats to keep government running. Some perceive McCarthy as insufficiently conservative or too untrustworthy.


But since 2015, he has worked overtime to shore up his standing with the right. He fully embraced Donald Trump, earning the nickname “my Kevin” from the former president. He has worked closely with and developed an alliance with firebrand Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, a member of the rebellious House Freedom Caucus who now is one of McCarthy’s most vocal backers.

He also has a powerful crew of right-wing media personalities in his corner, including radio host Mark Levin who has branded McCarthy’s detractors as “boneheads.”

Sam Geduldig, a Republican lobbyist and former House leadership aide, said McCarthy’s strength is his ability to build relationships and his tireless work ethic as a leader.

“With McCarthy, the conservatives that like him know he trusts them on policy; all he cares about is keeping the team together,” Geduldig said.

Former majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who worked with McCarthy, agreed.

“Kevin’s strength is his ability to understand members and to know what they need to go home to their constituents with,” he said.

But his courting of the volatile party base has not been without pitfalls. In the moments after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, McCarthy took to the House floor to denounce the violence and said in private meetings he would seek Trump’s resignation, only to progressively walk back that assertion in the days that followed.


His march back toward the base culminated in a visit to Trump at his Florida resort Mar-a-Lago, the first member of Republican elected leadership to do so. But even that show of fidelity was eventually undermined by audio of McCarthy disparaging the former president in the days after the attack that was leaked to a pair of New York Times reporters and released after McCarthy denied making the comments.

Those episodes have fueled a perception of McCarthy as a political chameleon.

He has been unable to keep his conference from being pulled into distracting sideshows, including appearances in white nationalist and antisemitic circles by Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Arizona Representative Paul Gosar, members whose support he now needs. The latest incident involves New York Representative-elect George Santos, who now faces myriad ethics questions and investigations after it was revealed he had fabricated much of his resume.

McCarthy has struggled in Washington to be taken seriously by the top power brokers. Pelosi derided him on camera as a “moron,” and President Biden largely ignored him to cut deals with Pelosi and Senate leaders.

In her own quest for the gavel, Pelosi benefited from the lack of a viable challenger. That has similarly been the argument from McCarthy’s supporters, who openly plead with conservatives to get on board.

“The choice is Kevin McCarthy or chaos,” Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, said on Fox News on Monday.

But in McCarthy’s case, his detractors claim to have a consensus alternative in mind that they will reveal later in the process of balloting, and incoming majority leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana is widely believed to be palatable to large swaths of the conference, though Scalise has pledged to support McCarthy’s bid.

Should he prevail, McCarthy’s challenges are just beginning, warned Westmoreland, the former representative.

“I think some of the stuff has been fairly ridiculous to me, but the battle doesn’t end tomorrow,” he said Monday afternoon. “And if Kevin prevails, he’s still got a tough row to hoe.”

Jackie Kucinich of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Tal Kopan can be reached at tal.kopan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talkopan.