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Can the 'Never Kevin' caucus hold the line?

Five House Republicans say they won't support Republican leader Kevin McCarthy — enough to deny him the speaker's gavel. But they're facing enormous pressure to cave.
Kevin McCarthy during his weekly press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington
Kevin McCarthy at his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 18, 2021.Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images file

The small band of far-right firebrands who could derail Kevin McCarthy’s speaker bid is facing enormous pressure to cave and throw their support to the California Republican ahead of the Jan. 3 floor vote.

The “Never Kevin” Republicans are being hammered by Mark Levin and other conservative media personalities who say McCarthy has earned the job. Because the House cannot move on to any other business until it elects a speaker, border-state conservatives say the GOP can’t delay as the nation faces a new surge of illegal border crossings in Texas. And the founding chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, Rep. Jim Jordan, who has endorsed McCarthy, says GOP committees won’t be able to meet and launch investigations into the Biden administration until Republicans unify behind a leader.

“Whatever differences may exist in the Republican conference pale in comparison between the differences [between] Republicans and the left, which controls the other party. … And frankly, it’s in the country’s best interest if we can hit the ground running on the investigations we need to do,” said Jordan, who as the incoming chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee plans to launch major probes into the Justice Department and FBI, including examining the search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

“You’ve got to seat the speaker before you can actually get committees formed, have the committee meeting where you adopt the committee rules, before you can do anything,” Jordan said.

It's an argument McCarthy himself has been repeating in the Capitol this week: "You can't do anything without getting the speaker done on Jan. 3. Everything stops. ... [Getting] this settled this week would be the best bet. The sooner, the better."

So far, the five anti-McCarthy conservatives — informally known on Capitol Hill as the “Never Kevin Caucus” — are showing no signs of backing down, even with the vote for speaker fast approaching.

The rebel group is comprised of GOP Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Bob Good of Virginia, Matt Rosendale of Montana, and Ralph Norman of South Carolina, and they’re all rallying behind Biggs for speaker.

If every House lawmaker attends the first vote of the year, on Jan. 3, those five could single-handedly block McCarthy, sending the speaker’s vote into multiple ballots — and almost certain chaos — for the first time in a century. Good said the number of his colleagues opposed to McCarthy is actually much larger; some Republicans say the number is as large as 12.

But there are powerful forces, on and off Capitol Hill, that have a vested interest in McCarthy ascending to the speakership.

He has personally committed that once he takes power, onetime conservative critic Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., will be reinstated on her committees after Democrats booted her. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a McCarthy ally, is expected to be appointed by him as Intelligence Committee chairman, while McCarthy just named Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., as chair of a new select committee on China.

Two years ago, as part of his courtship of Freedom Caucus members, McCarthy named Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., as his personal designee on the influential GOP Steering Committee. She’s now publicly supporting McCarthy for speaker.

"There’s always a quid pro quo — what have you done for me lately," Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., said.

Asked what he'll get in exchange for his support, Burchett replied: "I get nothing. I like Leader McCarthy; I hope he’s going to be Speaker McCarthy. But I don’t kiss enough butt and I don’t raise enough money."

The 57-year-old McCarthy — the minority leader for the past four years and a member of leadership since 2009 — is also close to K Street, whose lobbyists have helped make him one of the best fundraisers in Washington. His personal campaign and related PACs raised a record $500 million this past cycle, McCarthy's team said.

“As far as K Street goes, typically they go with a known entity,” Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., said. But he quickly added that K Street temporarily cut off McCarthy after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and “obviously he has not always played their games.”

Matt Gaetz, left, with Andy Biggs in Washington
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., left, with Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., in Washington on Nov. 14.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

Loudermilk, who has expressed interest in being appointed by McCarthy as chair of the Administration Committee, said he is backing the Californian because McCarthy has brought conservatives like himself into the decision-making process.

“I don’t look for someone to be as conservative as I am because we have moderates in our conference as well. What I am looking for is someone who is open and willing — that every member of the conference has a voice and has the ability to influence legislation — and he has done that,” Loudermilk said in an interview.

“I think he has worked hard. … And when it comes to the work of getting the majority, we got the majority," Loudermilk added.

Texas Rep. Brian Babin, a fervent Trump supporter and former Freedom Caucus member, works closely with Biggs; the pair co-chair the Border Security Caucus. But Babin’s squarely in McCarthy’s camp, arguing that Republicans, upon taking control of the House next month, need to quickly address the thousands of migrants streaming across the southern border.

“We need to pull together for the good of this country. And I’m hoping that we will elect Mr. McCarthy to be our speaker. He’s our nominee; we’ve already had the primary and he won the primary and he’s our nominee,” Babin said in an interview Monday.

“Look at our border. We had a caravan of 1,000 people come across the border this morning in El Paso. We are on our way to having 12,000 to 15,000 a day come across," Babin said. "And if we’re distracted, we’re gonna miss doing the things that we have to do with our border security."

The Never Kevins are also taking fire from some influential voices on the right. Former GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy, now a Fox News host, called the McCarthy detractors a “small band of Republican kamikazes” who are “convinced Donald Trump won the presidency in 2020 with 47% of the vote yet somehow Kevin McCarthy lost the speaker’s race with 85% of the vote.”

And conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin recently took aim at Biggs for opposing McCarthy, blasting him for “parading around as Mr. Conservative” and saying “he doesn’t even fundamentally understand the Constitution.”

“I’ve called out Andy Biggs and four others in the House of Representatives who are trying to sabotage the election of a speaker,” said Levin, who warned that moderate Republicans could team up with Democrats to elect a “liberal” speaker like retiring Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., if the GOP fails to rally behind McCarthy. 

Gaetz shot back at Levin on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, saying the talk show host was engaging in fantasy.

“Mark Levin was against Kevin McCarthy before he was for Kevin McCarthy. Just like Mark Levin was against Donald Trump before he was for Donald Trump,” Gaetz said. “So who knows? Being against Andy Biggs might be just like the first Mark Levin step to being Andy Biggs’ campaign manager in the next election cycle.

“Mark Levin said that Kevin McCarthy was a creature of the establishment and thus could never be speaker. Those were his own words.”