Let's Talk About Kevin McCarthy, GOP Pick For House Speaker : The NPR Politics Podcast The California Republican got his start in national politics as a self-styled "young gun" whose inveterate politicking has allowed him to outshine his contemporaries and rise to the top of the House GOP. Now comes the hard part: can he wrangle his narrow majority to accomplish his goals?

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political correspondent Susan Davis, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Fact-checking by Katherine Swartz.

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Let's Talk About Kevin McCarthy, GOP Pick For House Speaker

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HOLLY: Hello. My name's Holly (ph). I'm at the Moore Theatre in Seattle, Wash., for the comedy tour for my other favorite NPR show, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. This pod was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

11:36 a.m. on Tuesday, November 15.

HOLLY: OK. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KEITH: I was really hoping she was going to make a joke like, my other favorite comedy show, Up First.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: (Laughter) Now that one is hilarious.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: (Laughter).

KEITH: Really, you guys should listen to it. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: It is likely that today the House of Representatives will be called for Republicans, that they will win control in the next Congress. And the House Republican Conference plans to move forward today with leadership elections. But real quick, before we get to that, Mara, are you surprised that it's, like, a full week after the election and the balance of power in the House is only finally fully in focus?

LIASSON: Well, I would have been surprised if you asked me a couple of weeks ago. But after what we saw on Election Day, no, it's not surprising. Not only are we a deeply divided country, but we're an evenly divided country. And when we are so evenly divided - and as the House is going to be, regardless what kind of margin Republicans get, we know it's going to be a tiny one - it takes a long time to count votes, and some states count votes slower than others, so we have now learned to call Election Day election week or more.

KEITH: Sue, there is an election happening today of sorts for Republican leadership. Why are they doing that now when they won't - the new Congress won't start until January?

DAVIS: Well, it's pretty typical after an election for the parties to come back and organize. Think of today as essentially giving Kevin McCarthy the nomination to be speaker. The speaker is the only constitutional officer in congressional leadership. And so, on the first day of the new Congress, the first order of business is to elect a speaker. And it is there that he will truly be elected speaker, and it is there that he's going to need a majority of the whole House. Now, that is typically 218 votes if all 435 members of the House are present and voting.

KEITH: OK. So we will get to that math in a moment. But you did this piece about Kevin McCarthy. He is the current minority leader. He's from California. And we are expecting that today he will pursue that job. He's obviously - he's already been pursuing it, but that he will seek the votes of his members behind closed doors in an anonymous vote. And you did this piece for Morning Edition that I think we should just listen to that unearthed sounds of young Kevin McCarthy and also the Kevin McCarthy who joined the Congress and sort of captures his evolution over time.

DAVIS: Sure. I mean, this is a guy who has been considered a star since he got here. He was first elected in 2006. He had quickly been elected into the leadership in the California State Assembly when he served there before Congress. And when he came to Washington, he was a Republican very typically in the mold of that George W. Bush era. His first speech on the House floor was speaking out against a federal bill to raise the minimum wage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: I came to Congress to work to increase opportunity for all Americans, not to harm workers and small businesses.

DAVIS: Often described as sunny and gregarious with an obsession with campaign politics, McCarthy was quickly dubbed a young, rising star in the party, along with then-Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Together, the trio were the minority party's self-proclaimed young guns who wrote a 2010 book, went on a book tour and produced a glossy, Hollywood-style ad to promote their agenda and themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Joined by common-sense conservative candidates from across the country, together, they are ready to make history. Together, they are the young guns.

DAVIS: McCarthy also did the work. He's credited with helping recruit dozens of outsider candidates to run in the historic 2010 Tea Party wave that delivered a Republican majority and, with it, made him majority whip, right below Cantor, who became majority leader. But with that majority came a more right-wing, confrontational style of Republican lawmaker. And the party's young guns were also now the establishment. Cantor was forced out in 2014 when he was defeated in his Republican primary. In the aftermath, McCarthy became majority leader. Asked at the time if he was conservative enough to help lead the party, he told reporters this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCARTHY: They elected a guy that's only grown up to the grassroots. They elected a guy who spent his time going around recruiting many of these individuals to get the majority. Look; I've always had to struggle for whatever we wanted to overcome.

DAVIS: House Republicans, still stymied by a Democrat in the White House, continued to take out their inability to get much of anything done on their own leadership. Conservatives, led by then-Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina, led a months-long campaign that ultimately forced Speaker John Boehner to resign in the fall of 2015. McCarthy quickly announced a bid to succeed him, but he withdrew from that race when it became clear he did not have the support of the most conservative wing in the party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCARTHY: If we are going to unite and be strong, we need a new face to help do that.

DAVIS: That remaining young gun, Paul Ryan, reluctantly stepped into the role, and McCarthy remained the speaker's deputy. Donald Trump's stunning 2016 presidential victory once again realigned the political interests of Republican lawmakers. Tea Party-style opposition to spending fell way to loyalty tests to the new leader of the party. While Ryan and Trump were often at odds over tweets and the agenda, McCarthy worked his way into Trump's good graces. He once bragged to The Washington Post that after noticing Trump's favorite Starburst flavors were the red and pink ones, he made a point to deliver a jar of them to the president as a gift. Trump often called him my Kevin in private and publicly backed McCarthy to lead House Republicans after they lost the majority in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have a great man, and he's going to be, hopefully, a great speaker of the House.

DAVIS: McCarthy and Trump's alliance remained strong during Trump's first impeachment for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The day Trump was acquitted by the Senate, McCarthy tweeted out a video of himself tearing up the articles of impeachment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCARTHY: Acquitted for life.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RIPPING)

DAVIS: After Trump lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden and then fueled the January 6 attack on the Capitol, McCarthy, in the immediate aftermath, appeared ready to sever ties with Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCARTHY: The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters.

DAVIS: But when it became clear that the party base and most Republican lawmakers remained loyal to Trump, McCarthy pivoted. Twenty-two days after the attack, he was photographed with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate for a private meeting to plot winning back the House in 2022. McCarthy worked to win over Trump loyalists in the House, voted against Trump's second impeachment for incitement of insurrection and ousted Wyoming Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney from party leadership for her criticism of Trump. Cheney has never missed an opportunity to criticize McCarthy since, as she did just weeks ago on NBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIZ CHENEY: When Minority Leader McCarthy has had the opportunity to do the right thing or do something that serves his own political purpose, he always chooses to serve his own political purpose.

DAVIS: Now facing a razor-thin majority, McCarthy's political future relies on keeping House Republicans almost completely unified behind him. Already, a handful of Trump-aligned conservatives say they will not support him for speaker. This is Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz on his podcast last Thursday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "FIREBRAND")

MATT GAETZ: I have spoken with many Republicans in Congress and many who will join our ranks soon. None are actually inspired by Kevin McCarthy.

DAVIS: In an interview with the podcast "Control," former Speaker Ryan said McCarthy, who has now survived years of internal party dramas, should not be underestimated.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CONTROL")

PAUL RYAN: He's playing the inside game to win the vote for speaker. He knows exactly how to do that. He was better at that than me. And I wouldn't count him out ever because he really knows how members think, how they operate and how to play a vote-counting game.

DAVIS: I think this is a really key point, especially with the contrast with Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy. Paul Ryan would always say, I'm a policy guy, I'm a policy guy, and sometimes to his detriment, right? Like, he was politically obtuse a lot, and it didn't always help his speakership. I think it's fair to say that McCarthy kind of brings the opposite energy to this. He is widely seen as a political animal. He really understands campaigns, elections, tactics, vote counting. But he's not a policy guy. He's never gotten deep in the weeds on legislating or on the details. And that's going to be one thing to watch as we move forward and one of the challenges, possibly, of his speakership.

KEITH: So is he on the glide path to the speakership? If he knows how to count votes, how does his count look?

DAVIS: Probably - although, you know, there's always surprises...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: ...Around here these days, Tam. It goes back to the question, if not him, whom?

KEITH: Of course, we will talk about how that leadership election goes in the future, but for now, a quick break.

And we're back. If Kevin McCarthy in this secret-ballot vote falls well short of the 218 or even a bit short of the 218, he's going to have to do something, Sue, to persuade people to come over to his side. Some members have already been signaling their wish list.

DAVIS: Well, the question is, what do they want? And what conservatives are saying - like Andy Biggs of Arizona, like Matt Gaetz of Florida, like Bob Good of Virginia and a handful of others - is they are trying to get concessions from the speaker to give conservatives, I would even say far-right conservatives, more power in the process. What does that mean? They want more influence on something called the steering committee, which is a powerful sort of insider committee that doles out committee assignments. They want to loosen the House rules to make it easier to offer amendments on the floor so they feel like they can have more impact on legislating. There's also talk of changing something called the motion to vacate, which is the procedural tool by which you could try to toss out a speaker in the middle of a Congress. But there's going to have to be some horse-trading. I think McCarthy is very aware of this.

And on certain things - like committee assignments, amendments - he might be able to wheel and deal to get these folks on board. I think, you know, it's not unusual. In the past, you know, Nancy Pelosi - as Kevin McCarthy noted this week - when she's had these speaker votes before January, she also had some detractors. And those detractors used that time in between the two votes to get more of what they want. In 2018, they used that pressure to extract a promise from Nancy Pelosi that she would term limit herself in leadership. So there could be twists and turns on the way to January. I still think it's probably the safest bet that McCarthy will be the speaker of a majority that, you know, we can probably count on one hand how many votes he has to spare.

LIASSON: Kevin McCarthy is certainly a transactional leader. He's probably best suited to that kind of wheeling and dealing. He's never been the chairman of a committee. But one of the people who endorsed him that was sort of a surprise was Marjorie Taylor Greene.

DAVIS: You know, McCarthy has worked, even prior to this, to bring people like Marjorie Taylor Greene into the fold. I would note that a couple weeks before the election, when Republicans had their big event in Pennsylvania to unveil their agenda, Marjorie Taylor Greene was sitting right behind Kevin McCarthy on that stage. People that I've talked to say that one of the things that they think will be a strength of McCarthy is he knows how to build personal relationships with people. People like him, and he's willing to get people on his side.

Now, the counter to that, I think, is the sort of Liz Cheney view of the world is that, power at what cost? You know, if you're turning over your speakership to people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who have had conspiratorial or far-right or antisemitic views and are, you know, giving them a voice in the party, what are you doing here? What's the end? What's the purpose of your speakership? We don't really know the answer to that question. And McCarthy and his political allies wanted to have a really big red wave 'cause they knew that they would need a big majority in order to really get anything done 'cause you're always going to have a faction of the right that just wants to be against literally everything, just bills to keep the government open, right? And without that majority, he's got two paths. He's either going to need almost unanimity behind every single thing he does or he's going to have to reach across the aisle and get some Democrats on board. And neither one of those paths is going to be particularly easy for him.

KEITH: Well, and you talk about relationships. Does he have relationships with Democrats where he can build that kind of coalition?

DAVIS: Not really - I mean, this is the thing, and I've said this a lot on the podcast, and it's still true. You know, January 6 really did change the personal relationships up here. And McCarthy's willingness to, at first, sort of criticize Trump and then get fully back on board and then bring the Marjorie Taylor Greene's into the fold have left such a bitter, sour taste in most rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers' views of him. I think Speaker Pelosi at one point disparaged him as a moron. There's not a lot of natural bipartisan warmth right now for Kevin McCarthy, and I think he has work to do. If he's going to need Democrats, he's going to have to build a coalition of the willing.

KEITH: Mara, before we go, Sue had mentioned that Nancy Pelosi at one point agreed to term limit herself. She's also a Californian. She is well-known at being savvy for keeping her caucus in line. Her party is going to be out of power. Her party would be in the minority in the House. Do you have any sense of what her future holds?

LIASSON: Well, that is a really good question because - and it's a big subject of conversation in Washington. I mean, she's known to want her daughter to run for her seat. She has talked about stepping down theoretically. But the other night on television, when asked about this, she said, well, my members are asking me to consider staying. And I don't know what she's going to do. Sue, what do you think? Does she want to stick around, or does she want to finally pass the torch to a new generation of leaders and of Democrats in the House?

DAVIS: Man, if there is one thing I absolutely have no idea, it's what's going on in Nancy Pelosi's head. She keeps it so close to the vest. I think that the attack on her husband, Paul Pelosi, in their home by a man who was looking for the speaker - I don't know how that may have impacted her thinking, but I do know that it has certainly increased the sympathy that lawmakers here have for her to give her the space for the decision. Democrats aren't going to have their leadership elections for at least a couple more weeks until after Thanksgiving, and that is by design to give Pelosi room to figure this out. What I can tell you is there's a whole lot of ambition in the House Democratic Caucus, and there's a whole lot of younger lawmakers ready to rise if not only Nancy Pelosi decides it's time to go, but also Majority Leader Steny Hoyer...

LIASSON: Not to mention Jim Clyburn - they're all over 80.

DAVIS: ...Who's also a senior Democratic leader. I mean, there's a hunger for new leadership, but I also think that they are actually pretty popular and well-liked, and nobody wants to look like they're trying to push them out because that would probably serve against their own interests.

KEITH: Well, that is going to be an interesting podcast when we get to it. And before we go, we should also note that Donald Trump, the former president of the United States, is set to speak later tonight, where he is expected to announce a 2024 presidential bid or something else. He has said he will make a big announcement. If that happens, we will cover it in tomorrow's pod. All right. Let's leave it there for today. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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