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HFC Looks for Leverage in Speaker's Race

McCarthy cuts through a crowd of tourists as he walks back to his office in the Capitol Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Barring a historic meltdown, Republicans will select Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to be their nominee for speaker Thursday. But does that mean McCarthy will get 218 votes in the House floor vote on Oct. 29?  

Conservatives spent the better part of an hourlong panel discussion Wednesday suggesting that even if he's selected during the conference's noon meeting Thursday, it doesn't mean McCarthy is guaranteed to take the speakership. "The vote that matters is on Oct.29," Rep. Justin Amash said.  

The Michigan Republican, who twice voted against Speaker John A. Boehner on the floor, said conservatives need firm details from speaker candidates on how they would change the House before handing someone the gavel. Amash repeatedly suggested voting against the GOP's speaker candidate on the floor — even if the nominee won in conference — was justified because the speaker is a "constitutional position, not a party position."  

The House Freedom Caucus is trying to leverage the roughly 40 votes of its members to extract concessions on House procedure. The HFC does not have a candidate of its own in the speaker's election — it is endorsing Daniel Webster of Florida — and the conservative caucus is starting to develop something resembling a plan.  

Idaho Republican Raúl R. Labrador, one of the HFC's founding members, said Wednesday the caucus is looking for "concrete, specific changes that are made before the vote, not promises of changes in the future." Those rule concessions, whatever they may be, could end up representing a significant victory for the caucus.  

There's already plenty of evidence of the hardline group's influence on the process.  

At a Tuesday night candidate's forum, McCarthy talked about changing the voting power and representation on the steering committee, and he has consistently spoken in support of a more inclusive process.  

But the HFC seems to want more, and it looks increasingly likely that the the group — or at least a good chunk of its members — will vow to oppose McCarthy on the floor unless he agrees.  

While conservatives don't yet have a specific set of proposed changes, Republicans have already formed a working group to come up with ideas. What they want, it seems, is a way to assure spending bills come to the floor earlier to avoid deadline fights and that their amendments get votes — Labrador cited examples of amendments not being made in order by the Rules Committee because leadership said the amendment would be adopted, potentially poisoning the bill on the floor.  

Those could be tall asks, but the HFC is using the loose threat of denying McCarthy the gavel to see what they can get.  

HFC Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, repeatedly said Wednesday that the Freedom Caucus would vote as a bloc. "We have every intention of voting together as group tomorrow and on the House floor," he said. But there's reason to believe Jordan's grip on the group's 40 votes might not be as tight as he claims.  

While Jordan holds out the possibility that all 40 HFC members could withhold — as a bloc — support for McCarthy, some members of the caucus have unequivocally endorsed the majority leader. HFC member Ken Buck of Colorado has said he backs McCarthy. And Reid Ribble of Wisconsin, told CQ Roll Call Tuesday night he would "of course" support McCarthy in the House vote.  

"I believe that, at the end of the day, to pull everyone together, whoever wins the conference vote will get the vote on the floor," Ribble said.  

Ribble said he believed McCarthy would win in conference and on the floor, and said he doesn't anticipate the HFC coming together as a bloc. "I think it's going to be very individualistic once it gets to the floor," he said.  

If the HFC's leverage is damaged by members who already say they'll support McCarthy on the floor, it's just as damaged by the members who swear that they'll never support McCarthy.  

While the HFC is playing coy about whether it could vote for McCarthy, Thomas Massie, who is not part of the group, said Wednesday that McCarthy is "absolutely not an option."  

"You can't go back home and tell your town halls, 'Well, your tens of thousands of phone calls really made a difference. John Boehner stepped down and we replaced him with his right-hand man,'" Massie said. "That is not going to work. It will empower [Donald] Trump."  

The Kentucky Republican said he thought the dynamic between this election and the last two efforts to deny Boehner the speakership was different because McCarthy can't threaten to be a "sore winner" and punish members like Boehner.  

"The first thing whoever wins is going to have to do is bring the conference back together," Massie said, continuing that members were more free to vote for the speaker they believe in.  

Tim Huelskamp, who is an HFC member, said the environment was different, with three outsider presidential candidates collectively polling at 50 percent. "Folks that go in and say, 'I'm going to vote for John Boehner 2.0 however it looks,' they're going to face problems at home," the Kansas Republican said.  

No matter what McCarthy promises, no matter what changes he actually makes, there are some Republicans who will never vote for him.  

But between the votes McCarthy will definitely lose and the ones he definitely has, there is a small selection the California Republican is working to secure. Three weeks out, the math is still unclear, but some votes are up for grabs. And after Thursday's election, the difficult job of finding out what changes McCarthy can afford to give conservatives really begins.

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