Kevin McCarthy

In a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Thursday, Kevin McCarthy expects to secure his party’s nomination as speaker of the House of Representatives. (J. Scott Applewhite-AP)

By Michael Doyle and William Douglas
McClatchy Washington Bureau
October 7, 2015

  • Congressional Republicans vote Thursday on House speaker nomination
  • A political gaffe undermines McCarthy’s early leadership stature
  • Conservatives maneuver for advantage amid leadership changes

Washington —

California’s Kevin McCarthy is poised to become a leader on a short leash, the wounded general of a querulous army.

In a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Thursday, the 50-year-old Bakersfield native expects to secure his party’s nomination as speaker of the House of Representatives. But in working to fend off conservative challenges, for now, McCarthy has exposed the flaws and fault lines that will complicate his job.

The fact that two Republicans are challenging him underscores the House GOP’s enduring divisions. And an early rhetorical stumble drained McCarthy of some political juice at a crucial time and set up that clout-depleting Washington institution: the gaffe watch.

“He has to figure out how to get much better, much more effective at communications, so that people feel like we’re on offense in trying to change the government and take on (the) president,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in an interview. “It will be helpful for him to figure it out in the next two to three weeks.”

No one doubts the current House majority leader will muster the votes for nomination at the late-morning Republican caucus meeting held in the Longworth House Office Building.

“Kevin is going to have well over the sufficient votes needed,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a close McCarthy ally.

McCarthy will then need at least 218 votes when the full House chooses the replacement for House Speaker John Boehner on Oct. 29.

I see a conference, if it has a new culture . . . I think we should, can make some great accomplishments and make some real change. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’

Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, who along with Florida Republican Daniel Webster is challenging McCarthy, insists that the combination of Democrats and restive Republicans could be enough to deny McCarthy the speakership once the full House votes. That appears very unlikely.

It’s what comes next that counts.

Chaffetz already has said that he expects to retain chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform even if he loses his challenge. While payback would not play well among dissidents, a politician’s ability to mutiny without consequence underscores the House leadership’s weakened state.

The ambitious 48-year-old Chaffetz already knows this, as he was himself previously forced to restore under conservatives’ pressure a subcommittee chairmanship taken from a lawmaker, North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows, who challenged Boehner.

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