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McCarthy embodies House GOP's post-Trump dilemma and post-Gingrich history

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., center, joined at right by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, pause during a news conference after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two Republicans chosen for the committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Rep. Jordan, R-Ohio, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, July 21, 2021. McCarthy is denouncing the decision as "an egregious abuse of power," by Pelosi. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., center, joined at right by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, pause during a news conference after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two Republicans chosen for the committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Rep. Jordan, R-Ohio, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, July 21, 2021. McCarthy is denouncing the decision as "an egregious abuse of power," by Pelosi. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Shakespeare often contemplated how the mighty were fallen in his plays, sharing his observation that "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

Something similar seems to apply to the title of Republican leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.

This particular crown's current wearer, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, has been embattled of late over tape-recorded remarks he made in the aftermath of the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021 — the one that sent the members of both chambers of Congress fleeing in fear.

The tapes reveal McCarthy sharply dismissing the man those rioters were trying to keep in office, former President Donald Trump. McCarthy had said Trump bore some responsibility for that mayhem in a floor speech after members had returned.

But in these subsequent conversations with other members, he was recorded saying he was "done with this guy" whose actions "no one can defend." He raised the likelihood of impeachment and even mentioned removal of the president under the 25 th Amendment to the Constitution.

Today, McCarthy dismisses all that he said at that time as hypothetical strategizing. He tells his troops in the House Republican Conference that he never called on Trump to resign. And so far, Trump himself has accepted this story from McCarthy as an apology and "a compliment to me, frankly."

The GOP leader's Hill colleagues also seem OK with it — at least, most of them do, at least for now. The House GOP held a confab in the Capitol this week where they seemed in a mood to buy McCarthy's characterization of his 180-degree course correction.

McCarthy embodies the dilemma that confronts Hill Republicans in the shadow of Trump. His struggle to resolve it reflects a common experience of dealing with contradiction. "Every member had a similar process," one Republican member from Texas told The Washington Post.

This "process" may be called a pivot or a pirouette, proof of resilience or hypocrisy. But for the moment it enables members who fled for their safety on January 6 to act as though it never happened. And most of them seem to agree they need to do just that.

To do otherwise might displease both Trump and his followers. Polls tell us those followers, and their belief in his denial of the 2020 results, will matter a great deal in Republican primaries this year and in 2024.

So in theory at least, adopting this attitude keeps McCarthy in place and his party on track to take control of the House this fall. Electoral precedents for midterms, the current economic story and most polls suggest their chances are excellent.

At this week's confab, McCarthy was eager to segue from his mea culpa to a pep talk about beating the Democrats in November. And until this month, McCarthy had also been widely expected to be the next Speaker of the House. He may still gain that summit, but it is not a lock — nor was it one before this latest bout of candor was caught on tape.

A look back shows what it takes to lead

To be Speaker requires not only the support of most members in the majority party but a majority vote in the whole House. That is a different math altogether, because it means small factions or even individual holdouts within the party might deny McCarthy his chance at the top job.

It's happened before. Republican leaders who thought they would be the next Speaker have discovered soft spots in their support and backed off before a showdown vote on the floor. When the last truly dominant Republican Speaker, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, fell from favor with his own flock in 1998, it took weeks to find someone willing and able to cobble together 218 within the Republican conclave.

It's even happened to McCarthy before, when he was in line to be Speaker in 2015. He had just become the No. 2 man to Speaker John Boehner of Ohio as the 114 th Congress began, taking over for another "young gun" Republican who had lost his primary to a Tea Party activist. Even Boehner himself had some tense moments with party insurgents on swearing-in day, winding up keeping his job with a bare minimum majority.

The 218-vote threshold can be a recurrent hurdle even after a Speaker has won the job. Boehner found himself fighting a near-constant rear guard action against the House Freedom Caucus, hardcore conservatives in his party unwilling to support him when he made deals with a Democratic president.

So nine months into his third term as Speaker, Boehner simply quit. He resigned his seat in Congress and went home.

McCarthy seemed poised to step in at that moment, but it became apparent he did not have 218 commitments in his pocket. Some attributed this weakness to McCarthy having been the No. 2 for less than a year. Others pointed to an unguarded moment on Fox News when he implied that a certain series of House hearings had been done to damage Hillary Clinton's presidential credentials.

When McCarthy could not get over the top, and others who tried fell short, senior members persuaded a reluctant Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, then the Ways and Means chairman, to fill the breach. Ryan ran into many of the same roadblocks Boehner had, and after three years he too retired from Congress.

The need for 218, either to be Speaker or to succeed in the role, has been a big reason for all the drama in the GOP executive suite in recent decades, including times when the Speaker's big gavel has seemed as hard to hold as a hot potato – or perhaps a fumbled football.

The Hastert and Gingrich legacies

The last Republican leader to have a long ride in the job was Dennis Hastert. A former high school wrestling coach from Illinois, Hastert had the big gavel from 1999 until the beginning of 2007, a longer time than any other Republican Speaker in history. Yet he is not remembered for the relative calm of his regime but a scandal that contributed to the loss of the House in 2006 and for his own unrelated conviction for violating federal banking laws. His offense involved cash payments to a former student wrestler who had threatened to blackmail him.

Given Hastert's personal history, it is sometimes hard to remember he was elevated to the speakership after Gingrich because he was noncontroversial, or at least a lot less problematic than others on the leadership team. For a time he was known as "the Accidental Speaker," but ironically his eight years would be the longest tenure any Republican Speaker had ever had.

Hastert's rise began in the winter when Gingrich was abruptly forced out, leaving no one on the leadership ladder who wanted the job and could get 218 votes. The popular chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Robert Livingston of Louisiana, filled the bill – but only briefly. Stories of an extramarital affair led him to step back from his big moment and within days he had resigned.

It is hard to remember now what a skyrocket Gingrich had been just four years earlier, when he led the GOP to its first House majority in 40 years. For a time he could name committee chairs and change party rules as he pleased. But after just two years he met some resistance from members of his party who would not vote for him for Speaker in January 1997.

By June of that year, much of Gingrich's leadership team was involved in a kind of palace coup to depose him. The plot fell apart when the conspirators could not agree on which of them would replace their fallen Caesar after the coup. But late in 1998, after the party failed to gain ground in the midterm elections, Gingrich was out and the scramble to replace him had begun.

In a sense, that scramble to find another figure as transformative as the Georgian continues to this day.

There's a party role reversal in the House

These struggles on the Republican side have been notably at odds with the relative stability atop the House Democrats' leadership. In this case, the longtime media caricatures of the parties – the staid GOP and "Democrats in disarray" — have been turned on their head.

Pelosi took over as House Speaker when Democrats were deep in minority exile at the end of 2002. Two years later they fell to their smallest share of House seats in half a century. But since then, she has held the heights. Almost two decades have passed, and no serious challenge to her has emerged. Her No. 2, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, has been in place for just as long and their No. 3, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, has been there since 2006. (All are now over 80.)

There have been some party members who did not support or vote for Pelosi over the years. But their numbers have been somewhere between single digits and de minimis. Pelosi has been the boss through a dozen years in the minority and seven in the majority.

Over that same stretch of time, House Republicans have had four leaders. And if experience is any guide, they may well have a fifth before this year is out. McCarthy may well be the most popular Republican in the House, but unless that popularity moves the needle to 218, he will fall short again. And the scramble will continue.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.