[1/8] U.S. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is surrounded by reporters after a House Republican caucus meeting on the first day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 3, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
WASHINGTON, Jan 3 (Reuters) - A handful of hardline U.S. Republicans on Tuesday vowed to block Kevin McCarthy's bid to become the speaker of the House of Representatives, signaling a brutal battle inside the party on its first day holding the majority.
Republicans won a narrow 222-212 majority in November's election, meaning that McCarthy -- or any candidate for speaker -- will need to unify a fractious caucus to win the gavel.
Hardliners including Representatives Scott Perry, Andy Biggs and Lauren Boebert, oppose him, concerned that McCarthy is less deeply vested in the culture wars and partisan rivalries that have dominated the House and even more so since Donald Trump's White House years.
McCarthy tried to persuade the holdouts in a morning party meeting, vowing to stay in the race until he gets the necessary votes, but many participants emerged from the gathering undaunted.
"We may have a battle on the floor but the battle is for the conference and the country," McCarthy told reporters afterward. McCarthy withdrew from his last bid for speakership in 2015 in the face of conservative oppositions.
Fellow Republican Biggs is also seeking the role, while Democrats are likely to vote for their new leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries. Several hardline Republicans said they remained opposed to McCarthy after the meeting.
"I don't think he won anybody over that he didn't already have," opponent Republican Representative Bob Good told reporters as he exited the meeting.
"I’m here to fight for the American people not McCarthy," Representative Chip Roy told reporters. Ralph Norman confirmed he still was not planning to vote for McCarthy, saying, "All bets are off,” as he walked into the meeting.
McCarthy easily won his caucus's nomination in a November vote and many other Republicans voiced anger that opening a new Congress with a bruising battle over leadership would hurt Republicans just as they are attaining power to counter Democratic President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress.
'NOT SAVING US'
Republican Representative Daniel Crenshaw accused McCarthy’s opponents of undermining the party's larger interests.
"They’re not saving us. They’ve shown that we can’t govern, and now they’ll help Biden get wins before his reelection,” Crenshaw said. Referring to McCarthy's hardcore opponents, he added, "They're going to lose this battle because they stand for nothing."
They have criticized the California Republican for not taking a more aggressive stance against Democrats, who under Pelosi had been in control, on priorities including government funding, defense and border security.
A protracted speaker election could undermine House Republican hopes of moving forward quickly on legislative priorities involving the economy, U.S. energy independence and border security.
On Sunday evening, Republican lawmakers who were prepared to vote against McCarthy numbered in the double digits, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Perry said that McCarthy had rejected demands by the group on multiple issues, including term limits for members of Congress and refusing to interfere in party primaries. More broadly, hardliners are concerned that McCarthy is not as combative with Democrats as they would like. They also are seeking deep cuts in domestic spending.
With no Democrats likely to vote for McCarthy, he has only his fellow Republicans to turn to in hopes of securing the job that would put him second in line for the presidency, behind Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris.
This could set the stage for hours of votes when the 118th Congress begins meeting at midday EST (1700 GMT).
Asked on Monday whether he had the votes, McCarthy, who failed to win the speakership in 2015, told reporters at the Capitol: "I think we're going to have a good day tomorrow."
Representative Don Bacon, a McCarthy supporter, wrote on the online conservative news website Daily Caller that he could reach across the aisle to find Democratic support for an unidentified Republican candidate if hardliners did not relent.
While Republicans have won back the House, Democrats still hold the White House and Senate. Standoffs are expected over legislation to keep the government open, fund the military and address the U.S. debt ceiling.
The record number of voting rounds to elect a House speaker is 133 over a two-month period in the 1850s. Every nominee in the last 100 years has succeeded on the first ballot.
A standoff would leave the House largely paralyzed and could force lawmakers to consider another candidate. Incoming Majority Leader Steve Scalise and conservative leader Jim Jordan are seen as possibilities.
But 15 House Republicans - elected from districts Biden won in 2020 - have warned that they will accept nobody for speaker other than McCarthy.
The hardline Republican House Freedom Caucus is demanding rule changes that would enhance the group's influence. Moderate Republicans have said they will accept rule changes only if doing so leads to McCarthy's election as speaker.
Reporting by David Morgan, additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Gram Slattery and Moira Warburton; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell
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