House Republicans will meet behind closed doors Thursday to choose a new speaker — but the day everyone is waiting for is Oct. 29.
That's when the presumed next speaker, likely Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, will go to the floor and find out whether he really has the votes, or whether conservatives actually possess veto power over the conference. The California Republican's campaign for the job has always seemed to acknowledge the tougher election is the one he'd face in the House chamber. Even with Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, jumping into the race, McCarthy has appeared more focused on getting to 218 (a majority of the full House) than on getting to 124 (a majority of the GOP conference).
And perhaps there's good reason. McCarthy allies have stressed that he quickly locked up a majority of Republicans for his speaker bid. With that vote looking solid, it's only natural that McCarthy and his team would peek ahead to Oct. 29 and the potential opposition from roughly 40 members of the House Freedom Caucus.
McCarthy has made a point to meet with HFC leaders, and was set to address the group at a HFC-Tea Party Caucus candidate forum Tuesday night.
It's not that he needs their votes Thursday. He needs them on Oct. 29. At least some of them, anyway.
If McCarthy can get half of the Freedom Caucus to support him in the floor vote — even with non-HFC conservatives such as Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Louie Gohmert of Texas and Walter B. Jones of North Carolina looking poised to vote against him — he should be in good shape.
With that in mind, the California Republican has already met with Freedom Caucus leaders, privately highlighting his commitment to regular order and a more inclusive legislative process. But he's also been careful not to over-commit — seemingly aware he still needs to represent moderates, and not make promises he can't keep.
McCarthy's office stresses that the majority leader has an open-door policy. "He meets with, and proactively reaches out to, anyone who wants to discuss ideas, strategy, etc.," a McCarthy aide told CQ Roll Call Tuesday. "That of course includes members of the HFC."
But don't mistake open lines of communication for votes.
When CQ Roll Call caught up with HFC Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio and founding member Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho late last week, just hours after they and some other HFC members met with McCarthy, the pair was tight-lipped about the speaker's race. Even with McCarthy doing his best to secure their support — or at least prevent their opposition — neither Jordan or Labrador seemed eager to offer the slightest endorsement.
Asked if McCarthy's recent comments on Benghazi and his history of punishing members for voting against rules would impact their decisions, Labrador said, "That's a question that we're all asking."
Jordan said the Tuesday night candidate's forum would be a key moment for conservatives to make their minds up about the choices for speaker. "We will have a thorough discussion, a heartfelt discussion, a good discussion," he said.
Pressed on whether they thought McCarthy could count on 218 GOP votes in the Oct. 29 election, Labrador answered, "You just don't assume that he's going to be supported on the floor. So — he's got to earn it, he's got to earn that support."
And if he doesn't; if conservatives block McCarthy, what happens then?
"Your guess is as good as mine," Labrador said.
In two consecutive speaker elections, conservatives were unable to prevent Speaker John A. Boehner from taking the gavel because they didn't have a clear strategy and they didn't have a clear alternative.
As in those previous races, conservatives brag they have the numbers to block a speaker if they choose. But at this point, they seem to lack a real plan.
The idea at the start of 2013 and 2015 was that blocking Boehner on the floor and sending the speaker vote to a second ballot would throw the conference into chaos and a new candidate would emerge.
That strategy, which hasn't worked in the past, seems to be the default again.
One conservative told CQ Roll Call there is still a speaker candidate waiting to emerge, someone who has one foot firmly in the conservative world and the other in with the establishment, who is waiting for McCarthy to be blocked on the floor.
Much of the conjecture, at this point, is based on an assumption that conservatives can cobble together a bloc large enough to keep McCarthy from 218 Republican votes. But what if a handful of Democrats crossed the aisle on the Oct. 29 vote?
Relying on Democrats to win the gavel weakens McCarthy, Republican sources tell CQ Roll Call. But that possibility may just be the new reality of the GOP — one that McCarthy could live with, at least temporarily.
Of course, it isn't just conservatives who think McCarthy is going to be blocked. Chaffetz got into the speaker's race, he said, because McCarthy has a math problem on the floor.
“The question in my mind is, when will our conference come to the realization that we have to have a new, fresh person as our speaker?” Chaffetz said Monday. “I don’t know if that happens before Thursday, before we go to the floor, even after we go to the floor, I don’t know.”