WASHINGTON — In 2015, bomb-throwers in the House Freedom Caucus derailed Kevin McCarthy’s quest to become speaker.
Seven years later, members of the ultraconservative, Trump-aligned group are once again causing major headaches for McCarthy as the California Republican makes another run for the top job.
NBC News has not yet projected which party will control the House, but an estimate modeling the outcome finds Republicans with a slightly better chance. Republicans would have a razor-thin majority should they win.
Even though no major news network has made the call, House Republicans have begun jockeying for leadership roles under the assumption that they will be able to seize power.
McCarthy has spent years trying to position himself to be the next Republican House speaker. The job holds tremendous power, including the ability to control legislation on the floor and influence the makeup of committees.
Some House Freedom Caucus members are outright opposed to McCarthy, while others are demanding concessions from him that would greatly water down his power as speaker.
Because the majority could be so thin, McCarthy will need the support of nearly every Republican. That has given the Freedom Caucus enormous leverage.
So far, no one has stepped forward to challenge McCarthy. He shouldn't have a problem winning a simple majority of Republicans at a closed-door meeting of his members on Tuesday. Former President Donald Trump has endorsed McCarthy for speaker, as have other potential rivals and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a Freedom Caucus leader.
But a small handful of Republicans could keep McCarthy from winning the speaker’s gavel during the public vote on Jan. 3, the first day of the new Congress. He needs 218 Republican votes on the House floor — Democrats won't help — meaning it’s possible fewer than a dozen conservatives could derail McCarthy’s chances and throw the process into certain chaos.
"No one currently has 218" votes, said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, as he emerged from a private Freedom Caucus meeting near the Capitol where members were discussing their strategy. Roy previously told NBC News he has not decided who he is backing for speaker.
“I have personally stated that Kevin McCarthy has not done anything to earn my vote,” added another Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Bob Good, R-Va.
“There’s many times where we have come to … the minority leader over the last two years and asked him to fight on various opportunities and various issues and I have not seen the demonstrated fight that we’re looking for, for those who would aspire to lead us,” Good continued. “And so I expect there would be a challenge to him as a speaker candidate.”
Russ Vought, an influential conservative activist who went on to serve as Trump’s White House budget director, also warned against a McCarthy speakership in a statement Thursday.
“Kevin McCarthy’s speakership is in deep trouble. Members will have to go home and explain to constituents why they are voting for a leader who is not committed to waging war against a woke and weaponized government,” said Vought, now president of the conservative Center for Renewing America. “We need a wartime leader who eats confrontation with his adversaries for breakfast and is committed to an America First agenda.
“Saving the country requires nothing less.”
Asked Thursday about whether he had any concerns about support from conservatives, McCarthy pointed to GOP gains in recent years.
"I’m not concerned. And think about this: Since I’ve been leader for the last four years, we’ve only gained seats. It’s the goal of winning the majority. We won the majority. I think I accomplished the goal that we wanted to."
"People can have input," he added. "We want to have a very open input process."
McCarthy has locked up support from some Freedom Caucus members, suggesting the group is divided over who should lead Republicans in the 118th Congress.
“I’ve known him for 12 years and he’s always been open and available, and I think he’ll do a good job,” Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., a McCarthy backer, said in a phone interview.
Some Freedom Caucus lawmakers huddled Thursday at the headquarters of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a nonprofit aligned with Trump. They will meet again on Friday ahead of Monday’s forum for leadership candidates and Tuesday’s planned GOP leadership elections, though some lawmakers are urging McCarthy to delay those internal elections until after Thanksgiving.
Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., said Thursday's gathering to discuss McCarthy was about "saving their republic."
Emerging from his office in the Capitol on Wednesday night, McCarthy said that he was sure Republicans would capture the majority and that he had the votes to become speaker.
“Yes,” he said to both questions with a smile.
On Thursday, McCarthy tried to portray an aura of inevitability, rolling out what he called “transition teams” for the House GOP majority. Among the leaders of the teams were Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who is running unopposed for majority leader, and Reps. Jordan and James Comer, R-Ky., who would be chairmen of the Judiciary and Oversight committees in a Republican majority.
But Freedom Caucus leaders are pumping on the brakes. They’ve presented a growing list of demands to McCarthy in exchange for their support. The first could be the most damaging to McCarthy: Conservatives want him to reinstate a rule to make it easier to force a vote to oust a sitting speaker — something known as a “motion to vacate.”
That’s what happened in 2015, when a Freedom Caucus co-founder, then-Rep. Mark Meadows, called for a vote to remove Republican Speaker John Boehner from power; Boehner chose to resign rather than force his members to take an unpopular vote on his speakership.
If McCarthy agrees to that demand, it would mean the threat of recall will be hanging above his head if he makes unpopular decisions on things like government spending, debt and impeachment.
The Freedom Caucus is also demanding that McCarthy require legislation to be made available for 72 hours before it’s voted on and that he allow votes on amendments for all bills on the floor. Requiring a delay would prevent leadership from striking a deal with Democrats and moving quickly to pass legislation. The demands were laid out in writing by the conservative outside group FreedomWorks, which is closely aligned with the Freedom Caucus.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., said Thursday that he last spoke to McCarthy about the rules changes in September and had not heard from him since then. He said he was “frustrated” that the GOP didn’t make bigger gains on election night, though he was hesitant to blame a single person or McCarthy directly.
“As a leader in the party, you have a duty to provide a vision that informs voters of what you’re going to do if you win,” Perry said, “and I don’t think that vision was adequately provided by multiple folks.”
McCarthy has been in this predicament before. When he ran to succeed Boehner as speaker in 2015, Freedom Caucus members tried to get him to jump through similar hoops to win their votes. When he balked at their demands, Freedom Caucus members drafted GOP Rep. Dan Webster, the former speaker of the Florida House, to challenge McCarthy, giving conservatives an alternative to rally behind.
On the day of the vote, McCarthy, realizing he could not get to 218 votes on the floor, abruptly dropped out, eventually paving the way for a consensus candidate, Paul Ryan, to become speaker.
If McCarthy can’t cobble together 218 once again, it’s unclear who could. Scalise would be next in line but also would have the same challenges as McCarthy. Conservative leaders also have been distrusting of GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., a onetime moderate turned close Trump ally who is the No. 3 in the caucus. Other names floated include Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who has his eye on the Financial Services Committee gavel.
Webster, once a rival, said that this time around he is backing McCarthy for speaker. He thinks it’s a different scenario from seven years ago, because Republicans are ascendant, moving from the minority to the party in power.
“This is different in that we are coming from the minority into the majority, and this is a guy who raised the money to get us there,” said Webster, who warned that denying McCarthy the speaker’s gavel could result in a situation on the floor where no one can secure 218 votes.
The ensuing chaos, Webster said in a phone call Thursday, could lead to an unlikely outcome in which Republicans and Democrats reach a deal to elect a speaker.
“We need to somehow keep that in mind, that having someone else come in who is not a Republican would lead to the status quo,” Webster said.
Some Democrats on Thursday were encouraging McCarthy to do the unimaginable: strike a deal with the opposition.
“Just cut a deal with the Dems Kevin,” tweeted Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz. “Whatever you get from Freedom Caucus will not be worth it. The odds will be good but the goods will be odd.”