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Kevin McCarthy is still short votes to become Speaker. What could happen next?

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Republican Kevin McCarthy, who's currently the House minority leader, is the most obvious candidate to become speaker of the House next year. But he does not yet have enough support from his own party. McCarthy needs 218 votes to become speaker, and next year Republicans will have a majority in the chamber but a narrow one - only 222 members. And there are at least five staunchly conservative Republicans who have already said they won't support his bid. Here to dive into his strategy is the Associated Press' chief congressional correspondent, Lisa Mascaro. Lisa, thanks for being here.

LISA MASCARO: Hi, Juana. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: So there are at least five Republicans who have declared that they're not going to vote for McCarthy. And there are more current and incoming members who might not be inclined to vote for him either. So why not? What's the source of the opposition to him?

MASCARO: Right. This is a long-standing issue. These Republicans are some of the more conservative members of the House Republican Conference. They are some of the leaders of the Freedom Caucus, which is the group of some of the most conservative. They're asking Leader McCarthy for a series of rules changes, ways to have a better seat at the table in decision-making, in the ability to bring bills to the floor. But there's also an undercurrent here that some people say that Leader McCarthy just will never be able to win over these detractors, that he's just not conservative enough. They're not sure he believes in all the things they want. They just are unconvinced in his leadership.

SUMMERS: So setting that aside for a moment, you mentioned some of the things that these holdouts are trying to extract from Kevin McCarthy, like rule changes and other things. Based on your reporting, do you get the sense that these are changes or concessions that Kevin McCarthy may be amenable to?

MASCARO: Absolutely. Some of these changes are - fall in the category of sort of long-standing complaints that rank-and-file members, often of both parties even, have about the way the House is run. But there are some changes the holdouts are seeking from McCarthy that may just be too far. One of those changes is this motion to vacate the chair, and that's the ability for any one single member of Congress to file a motion to require a vote to basically get rid of the speaker. The House would then have to vote, do we want to boot out our speaker? That could be a bridge too far, the kind of change that could cost Leader McCarthy, if he were to become speaker, his job.

SUMMERS: So if we think big picture here, Lisa, what has been Kevin McCarthy's strategy to win over the votes he needs to become House speaker come January?

MASCARO: McCarthy has started by what you would think, sort of negotiating, working with people, holding closed-door meetings, calling people into his office. He's somebody who's seen as sort of a real people person. But in recent days, as it becomes clear that these five or so holdouts do not seem like they want to budge, McCarthy has taken a harder edge. He was recently on a conservative talk show where the talk show host was calling these holdouts knuckleheads. And McCarthy said they're risking, you know, the start of the new Congress. So he has really taken a harder tone against his colleagues. And that really leaves a question of what kind of leader he is. Do you win over your colleagues by bringing them on board, or do you win them over by sort of putting down the hammer?

SUMMERS: If we get to January 3, when the new Congress convenes with Republicans in control of the House, and Kevin McCarthy does not have 218 votes, what happens then?

MASCARO: Well, Juana, this would be historic. You look back to the 1923 speaker's election, and they had to go to rounds of voting before they finally were able to emerge with a speaker. McCarthy has said he's willing to go as many rounds as it takes. But, you know, there's a real question here. Will he pick up support if it goes to multiple rounds? Or will he even lose more detractors? There is an opportunity here for McCarthy to become speaker by fewer than 218 votes. But if some lawmakers were to simply vote present and not cast their ballot, that would lower the overall threshold, according to the rules, and would then lower the majority needed to become speaker. So in the past, for example, Speaker Pelosi has been elected with fewer than 218 votes, as had Republican Speaker John Boehner. That is another option that Leader McCarthy could try to take to win the gavel.

SUMMERS: Lisa Mascaro, AP's chief congressional correspondent, thank you so much for being here.

MASCARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elena Burnett
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.