This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.
When Rep. Kevin McCarthy left his downtown D.C. condo just before 8 a.m. on Tuesday, the first full day of work after the holiday recess, he was like the student who shows up for the final without doing all the studying, running solely on ambition and a confidence that everything would turn out fine in the end. Except for McCarthy, his proctored exam hall is the floor of the House of Representatives, and whether he passes will be determined by his classmates, most of whom may be cheering on his failure.
McCarthy, making his second bid to become the Speaker of the House, started his Tuesday undeniably short of the 218 aye votes he needs to claim the gavel and lead the lower chamber. Assuming every one of his GOP colleagues casts a vote for Speaker—and votes for a real person, and not just present—he can afford to lose just four votes. At least five of his fellow Republicans were in the Never Kevin camp, and another seven were Seldom Kevins. In other words, he potentially has three times that shortfall.
McCarthy’s team spent the holiday break working to lock down votes. They turned the calendar from 2022 to 2023 with ambivalence if not apprehension about Tuesday. They are starting with a majority that’s the narrowest for a new Speaker since 1931, and McCarthy’s polling numbers are mediocre at best among the party base. He has traded away just about everything he can, winning the likes of fringe voices like Marjorie Taylor Greene with promises of seats at tables, a move smartly predicted by TIME’s Molly Ball back in June. But McCarthy still can’t secure unanimous support among the firebrands inside the Freedom Caucus.
McCarthy, recognizing the need to feed the far-right base of his party, has already promised to allow his House to probe into Hunter Biden’s businesses, the treatment of those charged and detained for their alleged roles in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and how the Justice Department and FBI have possibly considered politics in their decisions. McCarthy is open to impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over the conditions on the U.S.-Mexican border, and hasn’t closed the door to other investigations that could embarrass President Joe Biden and his administration. As one Wall Street Journal columnist put it, McCarthy is offering up “a Committee on Censors and Snoops.”
Yet the holdouts still don’t trust McCarthy for any number of reasons: he’s seen as unreliably conservative; he has not embraced government shutdowns as useful tools to remake government or to cut off foes like Planned Parenthood; he is noncommittal about impeaching President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris; he is too weak in supporting ex-President Donald Trump’s Big Lie—and they don’t seem willing to bend, unlike McCarthy, who has proven to be entirely pliable.
Which brings us to this point: the House, before it can do anything else, has to elect a Speaker. Until that happens, the rules from the previous Congress guide the chamber, and precedent doesn’t really allow a new Rules package to come to a vote, nor does it provide for the House to move forward with seating of committee or subcommittee chairs—the people who actually write the laws. A paralyzed House as Republicans take control for the first time since the 2018 elections isn’t a good look for the GOP, regardless of who holds the gavel. And if McCarthy doesn’t win the Speakership on the first ballot, it would be the first time in a century that has happened; it took nine ballots in 1923 for Massachusetts Rep. Frederick Huntington Gillett to prevail. (His was not the longest, however; Massachusetts Rep. Nathaniel Prentice Banks prevailed in 1856 only after 133 votes cast over two months, and even then only with a rule change that allowed for a candidate to claim victory with a plurality of votes after four more inconclusive votes. The final Speaker selected before the start of the Civil War, New Jersey Rep. William Pennington, took 44 rounds of votes in 1859.)
This history, of course, is no consolation to McCarthy, who has long dreamed of wielding power over the House, sitting behind a President during a State of the Union, and being second only to the Vice President in the line of succession to the Oval Office. It’s a perch with power and prestige, but one that is certain to come with headaches in a Congress already shaping up to have unending contradictions between factions of his own party—not to mention Democratic opposition to almost everything the GOP promised on the campaign trail. Put another way, McCarthy is in the political battle of his life for a job his most recent GOP colleagues came to despise—so much so that four of the last five Republican Speakers resigned from office, and the fifth—Speaker Paul Ryan—chose to retire rather than try to come back to Washington.
This is, in fact, the modern Republican Party. The country club wing has been dwarfed by the burn-it-down crowd, the patricians like the Tafts and DeWines of Ohio don’t carry the power they once did as a populist movement has put the Midwest in play in a serious way. Greene fell in line, perhaps recognizing her pathway to power comes from working within the system rather than setting it ablaze. And McCarthy, who in 2010 helped recruit Congress’ Tea Party class, has long flirted with this rhetoric as he rose through the ranks to start his ninth term in the House on Tuesday. He even entertained a New Year’s Day proposal that would allow as few as five dissidents to call a vote to dump him at almost any time, similar to how the British Parliament can call snap elections and replace Prime Ministers in fairly rapid order.
So as McCarthy heads to his schoolhouse of a Capitol this gray Tuesday in Washington, the only question he can’t answer on this final exam is the only one left to answer: will he be at the head of the class, or will he be a rank-and-file student wielding a vote card but not a gavel?
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.