By Melanie Zanona, Gabby Orr, Alex Rogers and Annie Grayer, CNN
House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy sought to assuage House Republican concerns at a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill on Monday night, part of his campaign to lead the House GOP conference and possibly take the speakership in the next Congress.
The California Republican and House minority leader got a standing ovation in the conference’s first post-election meeting, according to a source familiar with the meeting. However, McCarthy also faced tough questions and complaints from his members who were disappointed in Republicans’ performance in this year’s midterms. While the GOP appears likely to win enough seats to flip control of the House, the margin is expected to be smaller than originally predicted.
“They don’t give out gavels in small, medium, and large — we have the majority and we have the gavels,” McCarthy said at the meeting, according to the source. CNN has not yet projected who will control the House in the next congress.
House Republicans will hold a closed-door vote on Tuesday. McCarthy will only need a simple majority to advance from Tuesday’s vote as the speaker nominee, but the vote on the House floor for speaker will come when the new House convenes in January, and McCarthy will need 218 votes at that time to win the speakership.
On Monday night, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, a former chairman of the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus, announced in an interview with Newsmax he was mounting a long-shot challenge to McCarthy during the House GOP’s internal leadership elections.
“I’m going to be nominated tomorrow to the position of Speaker of the House,” Biggs said on Newsmax. “We’ll see if we can get the job done and the votes. It’s going to be tough. Kevin has raised a lot of money and done a lot of things. But this is not just about Kevin. I think it’s about institutional direction and trajectory.”
One of McCarthy’s sharpest critics, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida predicted McCarthy is far short of the threshold he will need to get the coveted post.
“What I can tell you as I stand here right now is that Kevin McCarthy does not have 218 votes to become speaker,” he said. “I don’t think he has 200.”
Trump encourages allies to back McCarthy
Former President Donald Trump has been privately encouraging allies to support McCarthy’s bid for House speaker, according to two sources familiar with the effort, believing that the California Republican will be an asset down the road should the former president find himself in a contested 2024 primary.
Trump reaffirmed his support for McCarthy’s leadership bid in an interview with Fox News last week and he has since been working the phones to persuade Republican allies to back him, particularly conservative members who remain skeptical of McCarthy.
The news comes on the eve of Trump’s expected announcement for a third presidential campaign. The former president and the California Republican have spoken multiple times since the midterm elections, sources said, and McCarthy’s camp is hoping Trump’s endorsement will help win over some of the staunchest Trump supporters who have been critical of McCarthy.
Despite Trump’s pro-McCarthy campaign, it hasn’t fully broken through. Some of Trump’s staunchest allies have been all over conservative media attacking McCarthy. However, one notable Trump ally who will actually get to vote in the speaker’s race went on Steve Bannon’s podcast on Monday and expressed support for McCarthy: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who called it a “bad strategy” and “risky” to challenge McCarthy given their likely razor-thin majority.
McCarthy has worked hard to court Greene, from having weekly meetings with her in his office to promising her better committee assignments after Democrats kicked her off committees for incendiary remarks.
Meanwhile, Trump aides and allies have been privately critical of Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, amid the GOP’s underwhelming midterm gains, especially on the House side. CNN has not yet projected which party will control the lower chamber, though Republicans appear on track to gain a narrow House majority. Emmer is competing against Rep. Jim Banks, an ally of Donald Trump Jr., for the position of House GOP whip.
“The strategy is to protect McCarthy from blame because [Trump] needs him for his presidential run,” said one Trump adviser.
Trump has been eager to lock up public support from Republicans for his third presidential bid, with a separate GOP source saying he has been asking to see which GOP lawmakers have endorsed him in the media. So far, House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik has been the highest-ranking Republican to officially back Trump’s 2024 bid.
Trump’s support for McCarthy stands in contrast with his relationship to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. GOP sources told CNN last week that Trump is calling up his allies in the Senate to gin up opposition to the Kentucky Republican ahead of leadership elections in that chamber Wednesday.
A small, but vocal, group of GOP senators has been calling to delay their leadership elections so they can have a “family discussion” about why the GOP underperformed. And at least one Republican, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, has publicly vowed to oppose McConnell’s bid for GOP leader.
McConnell has been calling his colleagues over the last several days to shore up his support as his team plans to plow forward with leadership elections on Wednesday. They are planning to have a GOP air-clearing session on Tuesday.
House Freedom Caucus’ influence looms
Several members of the Freedom Caucus met with McCarthy in his office Monday as they seek to extract concessions from him in exchange for their speaker votes.
Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Scott Perry said that while McCarthy has been willing to hear them out, he doesn’t see McCarthy cutting any deals until after Tuesday, when Perry is “99% confident” that someone will challenge McCarthy to show him he doesn’t have the 218 votes he would need on the House floor in January.
“I don’t think anything’s gonna really change between now and then,” Perry told CNN, leaving the meeting in McCarthy’s office.
Rep. Bob Good, who said McCarthy faces “an uphill climb” to the speakership, said they’ve asked McCarthy to bring to them his proposal for running the House.
Good later said he would back Biggs’ run.
“I’m voting for Mr. Biggs tomorrow,” he said. “The country needs transformational change. And that’s gotta start with changing how Congress operates, how the Republican Party operates.”
Perry said that while their primary focus has been seeking rules changes that would empower individual members — and weaken the speaker — that is “not the limit” of their issues.
“We want to see this place change dramatically, to reflect the will of the people and to acknowledge how broken it is,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon anybody that wants to lead to kind of lay out their vision and how they would change their portion of it.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Monday.
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CNN’s Manu Raju and Kristin Wilson contributed to this report.