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Moderate Republicans weigh hardball tactics to counter anti-McCarthy crew

By Annie Grayer and Melanie Zanona, CNN

As frustration inside the House GOP has grown over a small band of anti-Kevin McCarthy lawmakers, an idea to strike back at the rebellious group has been floated among some Republicans: kicking these members off their committees, according to multiple members involved in the conversations.

While discussions over retributions for McCarthy’s foes, which have not been previously reported, have not gone beyond casual conversations among rank-and-file members, the threat shows how Republicans — particularly moderates — are wrestling with ways to act as a counterweight to the so-called “Never Kevin” movement, which is threatening to derail the California Republican’s speakership bid.

In addition to booting the McCarthy holdouts off committee assignments, various members are considering several other ways to potentially de-fang the threat from their right-wing colleagues. That includes weighing whether to oppose a rules package if it includes reinstating an arcane tool that would empower any member to bring up a floor vote to oust a speaker at any time, as well as the longshot idea of teaming up across the aisle with Democrats to elect a speaker if the race goes to multiple ballots and no one budges.

“Teams win. Fractured teams lose,” GOP Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, co-chair of the centrist-leaning Main Street Caucus, told CNN, pointing to McCarthy’s broad support among the conference. “We can’t let a handful hold the conference hostage.”

It’s unclear, however, whether moderates will actually be willing to follow through with the same hardball tactics often deployed by the far right — especially if it could wind up backfiring for McCarthy. Opposing the rules package, for example, could upend any careful negotiations between McCarthy and his detractors, so GOP sources don’t believe McCarthy’s supporters would ultimately take it down.

And during a recent meeting involving Republicans who all sit on the same committee, there was a “heated discussion” about offering a resolution to remove McCarthy holdouts from their panel assignments if they don’t back down, according to lawmakers familiar with the situation. But they ultimately agreed it might not be the best move — at least for now.

“You can’t afford to kick people off the island if that brings you below 218 votes,” one member said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Andy Biggs, one of the ringleaders of the anti-McCarthy crew, said he wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of retribution.

“When you do the right thing, if somebody wants to punish you for doing the right thing? That’s on them,” Biggs said.

The dynamic offers a preview of the tensions between the moderate and MAGA wings that are likely to spill over next year with a razor-thin House majority. Part of what’s fueling the divide: House Republicans who identify as either centrist or part of the GOP’s so-called governing wing feel validated following a midterm cycle in which many extremists candidates failed.

“People need to recognize we don’t need to double down on failed policies and failed candidates,” said Rep. Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican. “There’s a reason the midterms were the way that they were: people who are left of center, right of center were the most successful.”

While hardliners have laid out a lengthy list of demands for GOP leadership, with a slim margin, moderate lawmakers — largely known as the party’s majority makers — know they can exert equal influence over everything from legislation to investigations. And moderates want to flex their muscles starting with the speaker’s race, which they hope will set the tone for their new majority — even as they struggle to settle on their best options to counter conservative hardliners without causing the same chaos they’ve accused McCarthy’s critics of creating.

“From a governing perspective, it’s important that Republicans don’t start January 3 by going face down and not having some clarity as to what we’re going to be able to accomplish” GOP Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas told CNN. “We need to be able to hit the ground running and demonstrate to the American people that the trust and confidence they’ve given to us by giving us a majority, albeit slim, was a good decision.”

GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the handful of Republican lawmakers to come out in firm opposition to McCarthy as speaker, also acknowledged the reality of a narrowly divided House.

“We are in a community of common fate,” he told CNN. “We have to acknowledge that the ship isn’t going anywhere if five people won’t row in that direction. And that’s true on impeachment, it’s true on the speakership vote, it’s true on the budget, it’s true on policy choices.”

‘What concessions are going to be made?’

Aside from plotting potential retribution, there is also concern among those who support McCarthy over what kind of deals he could be willing to make in order to secure the votes for speaker.

The Republican Governance Group, a band of centrist-leaning lawmakers, huddled with McCarthy on Wednesday in order to get a sense of where his head is at, according to lawmakers who attended. During the meeting, they told McCarthy they would have his back and were committed to voting for him on multiple ballots if it comes to that. And they also passed out “O.K.” buttons — which stands for “Only Kevin” — in a joking nod to McCarthy’s opposition.

“Some of the questions that remain unanswered is what other deals are going to be cut, you know, what guarantees, what concessions are going to be made?” Womack asked. “We got to be careful that we don’t give a lot of that leverage away.”

“I think he is dug in on some issues, and probably willing to talk on others as he should,” Womack added after the meeting.

But one member told CNN they also conveyed concern to McCarthy about restoring the motion to vacate the speaker’s chair. The tool was constantly wielded over former Speaker John Boehner’s head before he eventually resigned, and most Republicans are concerned that it would hamper their ability to effectively govern.

McCarthy is also against the idea, but some sources believe he may need to cede some ground on the issue or find compromise in order to unlock the remaining votes he needs to become speaker. The GOP leader has gone to the five individuals who have publicly come out against him directly, GOP Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, one of the five, told CNN, and is continuing ongoing conversations with various factions of the Republican conference.

GOP Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee told CNN of the deal-making McCarthy is doing: “He’s got to do whatever he thinks he needs to do as long as it doesn’t compromise our values as a conference.” Burchett acknowledged that if McCarthy accepted the demand to add vacate the chair to the rules package it would be “utter chaos but if McCarthy supports it and can live with it, I’ll be for it.”

In a Wednesday conference-wide meeting, the latest of the series ahead of the new Congress, McCarthy held a forum to let his members continue debating potential rules changes and other concessions, even though there is still no resolution on the controversial motion to vacate the chair.

“He’s open to a lot of things,” Norman told CNN, including adopting the motion to vacate the chair rule.

At this point many members are still preaching unity, calling the private deal-making part of the process, and emphasizing that the conference will come together when the new Congress begins January 3. To that end, the Republican Governance Group recently sent a letter urging their colleagues to unite behind McCarthy.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that Republicans are out there having conversations and talking about different points of view,” GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida told CNN.

Even amid the high-stakes negotiations, members from competing factions have had time to have some fun with one another. Burchett hosted a Christmas party in his office this week, where all corners of Capitol Hill came together, including some anti-McCarthy lawmakers. Amid the Mountain Dew fountain and “charcuterie plate” consisting of Cheez Whiz and Ritz crackers, Burchett at one point rode the skateboard of Gaetz’s wife.

Rep. Blake Moore, a Utah Republican who identifies himself as part of the governing wing, said at the end of the day, the various factions actually agree on most things and dismissed the idea it would be tense next year.

“I’ve said this over and over again: there is not this, like, enormous amount of drama,” Moore told CNN. “I’ve met with House Freedom Caucus members to chat on what we agree on. And it’s an enormous amount.”

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