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Conservatives vying to derail Kevin McCarthy's speaker bid may not be able to stop him. But forcing multiple votes — the record is 133 — could still make for a historic fight.

US House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, his teeth clenched and his hands nearly coming together in front of him, speaks to reporters during a weekly Capitol Hill news conference on January 13, 2022 in Washington, DC.
US House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters during a weekly Capitol Hill news conference on January 13, 2022 in Washington, DC.Alex Wong/Getty Images
  • Kevin McCarthy is working to clinch the votes needed to become House speaker in 2023.

  • Around a dozen House Republicans currently have issues with giving him the job.

  • Dragging out the process will determine where McCarthy fits in with other contested speakers.

Eight years after abandoning his first speaker bid to sidestep a conservative rebellion, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is vowing to continue the GOP leadership fight on the floor.

On Tuesday — during the outset of the 118th Congress — McCarthy lost three consecutive votes for speaker, missing 20 votes from GOP members. Sixteen of these votes would have allowed him to finally clinch his dream job.

Additionally, former President Donald Trump — one of the more vocal supporters of McCarthy's bid for Speaker — could be on the fence about continuing his endorsement.

McCarthy, however, has far from given up, telling reporters on Tuesday that he's "not going anywhere."

"Look, I have the record for the longest speech ever on the floor," McCarthy said. "I don't have a problem getting a record for the most votes for Speaker too."

The voting for Speaker will continue on Wednesday.

The current parlor game in Washington is trying to figure out how long — Minutes? Days? Weeks? — frustrated Republican hardliners like protest candidate Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, anti-McCarthy agitator Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, and the half-dozen, concession-seeking conservatives aligned with Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania can keep the gavel out of his hand.

The thwarting of an outright victory on the first ballot automatically bumped McCarthy into the fraternity of House speakers who have more convincing to do in order to sew up their own contested candidacies.

The question is: Can McCarthy barter his way into the ranks of those who won over skeptics after just a couple of retries? Or do his opponents have enough clout to keep McCarthy —  and by extension, the general functioning of the House of Representatives — twisting in the wind longer than the two-month wait and 132 rejections that current record holder Rep. Nathaniel Banks endured back in 1855 (he limped through on the 133 ballot).

McCarthy's career trajectory remains uncertain due to the narrow majority House Republicans will have in the 118th Congress. Although they flipped the chamber in November, the modest midterms win leaves House GOP leaders with a 10-seat advantage over House Democrats, but just a handful of members they can lose for a majority vote (218 in the 435-seat House).

As former Congressional Research Service staffer Matt Glassman points out in his cheat sheet on speaker elections, the math works a little differently in leadership contests because the threshold changes if lawmakers abstain from voting or don't name their alternative candidate.

Which means that the anti-McCarthy bloc including Biggs, Gaetz, and Reps. Bob Good of Virginia, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, and Matt Rosendale of Montana can try to jam McCarthy by voting no, or rallying around a specific candidate like Biggs. But they would actually help McCarthy's cause by voting "present" (that would drop the House total to 430, meaning McCarthy only needs 215 other votes to win).

So, with five hard no's from the Biggs contingent, seven holdouts craving procedural changes, and four dozen GOP moderates who view McCarthy as the only viable candidate, the aspiring speaker's place in the history books could still break several different ways.

  • If detractors had stuck him on the the first vote to make a political statement, but then let McCarthy off the hook the second time around, the California Republican could have taken his place among fellow two-ballot-needing speakers Theodore Sedgwick (1799), Joseph Varnum (1809), and John Taylor (1825).

  • If he turned out to be a third-time's-the-charm type of guy, McCarthy would have joined triple-ballot takers Frederick Muhlenberg (1793), Nathaniel Macon (1805), and Robert Winthrop (1847).

  • Should deliberations stretch into double digits in terms of balloting, McCarthy must then begin jockeying for position among Frederick Gillet (nine ballots; 1923), John Bell (10 ballots; 1833), Robert Hunter (11 ballots; 1839), and Philip Barbour (12 ballots; 1821).

  • Pulling it out in less than two dozen ballots would place McCarthy back in the running with John Taylor, who had to sit through 22 votes to get the job in 1819. (Taylor must've worked on his salesmanship by 1825.)

  • Running the gauntlet close to four dozen times would land McCarthy in the realm of William Pennington, who battled through 44 ballots over two months.

  • Should getting a promotion require more than five dozen ballots, McCarthy would move into Howell Cobb territory (63 ballots; 1849).

  • In order to push McCarthy past Banks in terms of all-time ballots, blockers would have to keep McCarthy at bay at least 134 times.

As daunting a task as that may seem, Gaetz mused to political outlet The Hill that he's prepared to dig in his heels though the spring.

"We may see the cherry blossoms before we have a Speaker," the Trump-aligned Floridian said, citing DC's seasonal spectacle.

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