Dec 20, 2022

The Republican fight for Speaker of the House.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaking at a Donald Trump rally in Arizona. Image: Gage Skidmore
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaking at a Donald Trump rally in Arizona. Image: Gage Skidmore 

Plus, will Dr. Fauci have to testify?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

We're covering the Republican fight over who will be the next Speaker of the House. Plus, a question about whether Dr. Anthony Fauci will face criminal charges for his handling of Covid-19.

Quick hits.

  1. The House January 6 Committee unanimously voted to recommend former President Trump for four criminal charges: defrauding the government, conspiracy to make a false statement, obstruction of an official proceeding and aiding in an insurrection. The referrals are not binding but act as a recommendation to the Justice Department. (The charges)
  2. The committee also referred House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Scott Perry (R-PA) and Andy Biggs (R-AZ) to the Ethics Committee for refusing to comply with subpoenas. (The referrals)
  3. The Supreme Court temporarily blocked a lower court ruling that would have ended Title 42, effectively extending the Covid policy that bars asylum applicants from entering the U.S. (The decision)
  4. At least six people, including a 73-year-old gunman, are dead after a mass shooting in Toronto, Canada. (The shooting)
  5. Congressional appropriators filed a $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill that will fund the government for the next year, deliver supplemental aid to Ukraine, increase natural disaster relief funding, ban TikTok on government devices, and rewrite the Electoral Count Act, among many other provisions. (The bill)
  6. BREAKING: A 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Northern California has left tens of thousands of residents without power. (The quake)

Today's topic.

The next Speaker of the House. In the 2022 midterms, Republicans won the House of Representatives 222-213, grabbing the same number of seats Democrats currently hold in Congress. Because they will be in the majority, they need to elect a House Speaker, but the current favorite — Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) — does not appear to have the necessary votes.

Reminder: On January 3, when the new Congress assembles, one of its first actions will be to vote in a new Speaker of the House. This comes before newly elected members of Congress are sworn into office. Republicans have already nominated McCarthy by a 188-31 vote, and Democrats — after Nancy Pelosi stepped down — have nominated Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). If neither lawmaker wins a majority, the voting will continue until one does — what's known in Congress as a "floor fight," something that has happened only 14 times in our history. The last floor fight was exactly 100 years ago, in the 1923 Congress.

During this voting, members can horse trade and deal among themselves in order to jockey for position. Since Republicans hold the majority, there is a near-guarantee the Speaker will end up being a Republican. However, McCarthy needs a majority of seated members to become speaker — which, in this case, should be 218 votes. With 222 seats in the House, that means he can only afford to lose four members. Right now, five Republicans — Reps. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Bob Good (R-VA), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Ralph Norman (R-SC) and Matthew Rosendale (R-MT) — have said they would vote "no" on McCarthy for speaker.

Several other House Republicans have not committed to voting yes. That puts him in serious danger of not being elected. Former President Donald Trump has spoken in favor of party unity, calling on his supporters to back off their opposition to McCarthy and support his bid for speaker. McCarthy's primary competition is Biggs, who ran against him in the caucus vote but lost by a large margin.

It's worth noting here that McCarthy may not need exactly 218 votes. Only a majority has to vote for him, so if enough members skip the vote or abstain by voting "present" he could end up winning without a 218-vote majority (Nancy Pelosi won the 2021 election with 216 votes, as did John Boehner in 2015).

Most of the opposition to McCarthy is coming from the Freedom Caucus, a group of more conservative lawmakers who are withholding their support until they see certain changes to the House rules. One of those rule changes includes the power to allow any member to call a no confidence vote to remove the speaker at any time, which they say will bring accountability. McCarthy and his allies, meanwhile, argue it will create a chaotic government.

Today, we're going to take a look at some arguments from the right and left about McCarthy as speaker, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Most conservatives seem to support McCarthy, but there is broad frustration with Republican leadership’s recent lack of results.
  • Some argue he has earned the right to be speaker and led the House well.
  • Others argue the Republican base is hungry for a change at the top, and McCarthy should be one of those changes.

In Newsweek, Newt Gingrich said McCarthy has earned the role.

"Remember that when members were asked on Nov. 15 to choose between McCarthy and Rep. Andy Biggs, the House Republican Conference voted 188 to 31 for McCarthy. That is an 85 percent majority. In most elections, that's considered decisive," Gingrich said. "No one has done more than McCarthy to earn the speakership. He has campaigned more to create a Republican majority than anyone since Boehner in 2010...Set aside the $500 million McCarthy and his allies raised during the 2022 campaign cycle. McCarthy has been the most aggressive recruiter in the party's history. He has found and pulled in a historic number of new members—and significantly broadened the GOP.

"In the 2020 cycle, the House GOP had 228 female candidates. By the 2022 cycle this had grown to more than 250 female candidates, as well as more than 220 minority candidates, and more than 120 veterans. McCarthy's commitment to a broader, more diverse, and open GOP is being translated into reality," Gingrich wrote. "McCarthy united Republicans against the Democrats' impeachment efforts and January 6 show trials (putting Jim Jordan on the intelligence committee to fight them directly). Members of the military are no longer under Joe Biden's draconian vaccine mandates. Thanks to McCarthy, Reps. Adam Schiff, Eric Swalwell, and Ilhan Omar will not be serving on major committees after their repeated lies to the American people. He's made clear that he's going to stop runaway spending—and he's willing to use the debt ceiling to do so."

In American Greatness, Rep. Andy Biggs wrote about why he is opposing McCarthy and why he could be a good alternative.

"For conservatives, the Republicans are culpable for failing to put the brakes on the Left. Many of my constituents justifiably turned their ire on Republicans. They want us to fight," Biggs said. "I urged current Republican House leaders to use “must-pass” legislation as leverage to change bad policies. For instance, the National Defense Authorization Act is a bill that gives Republicans tremendous leverage because most Democrats don’t want to support our troops, so the bill needs Republicans’ support to pass. We could have leveraged it to exclude many provisions that advanced wokeism, such as the establishment of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office... we could have demanded that military personnel dismissed from service solely for refusing the COVID vaccine be reinstated. We didn’t do any of that. That was a missed opportunity.

"There will be more opportunities in the next term of Congress. We need a leader who will open up the process to members of Congress by moving congressional authority away from the leadership and toward the members," Biggs said. "Why not eliminate massive, multi-subject bills? We should be handling more streamlined, single-subject bills. And, we should make sure every member has at least 72 hours to read every bill before it comes to the floor. Robust debate should be encouraged, as well as the opportunity for members to offer amendments on legislation. The Republicans in Congress have decided it’s better to cling to the status quo than to make change."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board expressed its opposition to the opposition.

"What’s bizarre is that the dissenters don’t have major policy differences with Mr. McCarthy or a plausible alternative candidate for Speaker. Mr. Biggs has no chance. He and his rump group also don’t seem to have any constructive reason to oppose Mr. McCarthy beyond a desire to grab the media spotlight or blow everything up," the board said. "Their main demand is so self-defeating it could have come from Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The dissenters want Mr. McCarthy to concede that any Member could call the chair vacant and insist on a vote to replace the sitting Speaker. In order to get the votes to become Speaker, Mr. McCarthy is supposed to weaken himself so much that he wouldn’t be able to govern as Speaker.

"Yet a narrow GOP majority of only 222-213 requires a leader who can enforce party discipline," it added. "That’s how Nancy Pelosi has been able to govern with the mirror-image majority in the last two years. Too many House Republicans are too dimwitted to understand the uses of power and how to wield it. They’d rather rage against the machine to no useful effect. Meanwhile, across the Capitol, Senate Republicans are doing Mr. McCarthy no favors by joining Democrats to pass a giant omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2023. Most House Republicans prefer a continuing resolution to fund the government only into early next year, when Republicans will have more leverage as the House majority."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left worry what it means for the future if McCarthy acquiesces to the right flank of the House.
  • Some call out the coddling of "extremists."
  • Others say McCarthy's problems are only just beginning, and will get much worse once he has the job.

In MSNBC, Michael A. Cohen said McCarthy is in the "unenviable position of having to negotiate with the extremists."

"He’s threatened to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and vowed to throw Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell, Ilhan Omar and Adam Schiff off their congressional committees to win over Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. (He’s also pledged to restore Greene's committee assignments.) McCarthy has also promised to lift all COVID restrictions in the House, end proxy voting and even remove the metal detectors installed off the House floor after Jan. 6," Cohen said. "And while Senate Republicans were happy to criticize Trump’s recent meeting with a pair of antisemitic cretins, McCarthy refused to do so — no doubt in part because most of his members reside in districts where Trump remains popular.

"The coddling of Republican extremists will not end with one vote. It will continue for as long as McCarthy is speaker," he added. "On practically every issue, he will have to navigate the same choppy waters. This will be bad for McCarthy, but it will be worse for the country because when McCarthy is held hostage by GOP extremists, that means the House is held hostage by GOP extremists, which means all of Congress will be held hostage, which in turn means … well, you get the idea. And even if Senate Democrats, with a possible one-seat majority, are able to find common ground it won’t matter much because little of the legislation they pass will go anywhere in the House."

In Slate, David Faris said Kevin McCarthy is about to "enter political hell."

"[Outgoing Speaker Nancy] Pelosi had two things that her Republican counterpart will not: a caucus full of mostly sane team players, and a policy agenda less radioactive than graphite from an exploded nuclear reactor," Faris said. "The Freedom Caucus’ demands won’t end with idle chatter. Its members will likely demand hearings and then impeachment proceedings based on Hunter Biden’s purported laptop material, an issue Republicans have now spent many years trying to get a justifiably indifferent general public to care about, with zero success. Because there are likely at least four Republicans in the House who understand that it’s a terrible idea to impeach the president over an inscrutable, decade-old scandal that no one even pretends involved a crime, they won’t have the votes to do it anyway.

"Making Obama-era material from the president’s son’s computer the centerpiece of the House GOP’s agenda would be bad enough if that were all they were promising to do. But the only other thing they seem eager to talk about is gutting Social Security and Medicare," Faris said. "Republicans seem incapable of resisting the urge to publicly threaten Social Security anytime they reach even the warning track of power. This is especially puzzling since they will utterly lack the power to gut the program over the next two years, they haven’t come close to doing it even when they’ve held Congress and the presidency this century, and they are surely aware that cutting or privatizing Social Security polls only marginally better than police abolition."

In The New Republic, Alex Shephard asked why McCarthy would even want this job?

"How is McCarthy equipped for the road ahead? He is not a well-known ideologue or policy wonk like his Republican predecessor, Paul Ryan. Nor is he a master of arm-twisting and political arts, both dark and light, like his Democratic predecessor, Nancy Pelosi," Shephard wrote. "What the agitated right flank wants goes beyond extortion; they would essentially disempower McCarthy almost completely and hand control over to the House’s most extreme members. Their demands include the right for any member to force a vote on removing the speaker; for members to be given at least 72 hours between the release of a final bill’s text and a vote on the floor; an increase of the number of Freedom Caucus members on the House Rules Committee; and, naturally, a commitment not to raise the debt ceiling without an agreement to balance the budget in the next decade–something that would inevitably result in steep cuts to federal programs like Social Security and Medicare.

"The result of all of this may well spell long-term political disaster for Republicans as they further alienate themselves from Normie America," Shephard wrote. "Instead of making the case that they can govern, they will spend the next two years launching increasingly incoherent investigations into whatever boutique outrage or spectral threat is leading Tucker Carlson’s show on any given day, and consistently threatening to gut some of the country’s most popular programs. This will all be quite bad for both McCarthy’s party and the country, but he knows better [than] to say so, lest his ambitious plan to become speaker, and thus an indispensable man at last, fails to come to fruition."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I think it is McCarthy's job.
  • The Freedom Caucus has made several reasonable proposals that are being framed as extreme.
  • Ultimately, I think McCarthy will and should end up as Speaker of the House.

I'll just start by saying it should be McCarthy's job.

I don't see the dispute here in real terms. He won the caucus vote in a landslide, and he is far and away the most qualified person for the job. He is the current House minority leader, a job he has handled fairly well from a conservative perspective. House Republicans run the gamut from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) to Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), and are not an easy group to wrangle. Aside from Cheney, who has basically gone all-in on anti-Trumpism, McCarthy has kept his caucus unified in big moments, while recruiting new candidates and running a pretty smooth election machine during the midterms.

And most importantly, there are no real alternatives. Rep. Biggs is a blunt force instrument the Freedom Caucus is using to clog up this process, but very few Republicans in the House really think he should have the job. They just want to protest McCarthy and get some rule changes. The vast majority of Republicans, I'd wager, don't even know who Biggs is — so I certainly don't think his candidacy is representative of the base's will.

All that being said, I do think the requests from the Freedom Caucus should be discussed with more objectivity and, in my opinion, more favorability. One of the requests — the restoration of any member's ability to bring up a vote to remove McCarthy — should be ignored. It is an arcane rule that would make the House entirely dysfunctional and McCarthy is right to reject it. Because of this request, most of the commentators above frame the entirety of the demands as some kind of ransom note — the political equivalent of hostage taking. I disagree.

Here are the other requests, in fairly plain language (in bold), laid out by Emily Brooks in The Hill. I've attached my brief commentary next to them in italics.

  • Require at least 72 hours from release of final bill text before it gets a vote on the House floor. I'd vote for this rule change. Members of Congress are now regularly left out of the legislative process by leadership, and this would be a small step toward remedying that. Additionally, it would force bills to be completed well ahead of deadlines rather than — say — just hours before.
  • Bar House GOP leadership and leadership-affiliated PACs from getting involved in primaries. The McCarthy-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund was active in many House primaries, boosting McCarthy-friendly candidates in the 2022 cycle. This is a totally reasonable debate for members of Congress to have. I'm not sure why you'd choose House leaders whose help you don't want in winning elections, but I do understand the desire to decentralize these kinds of funding decisions.
  • Increase the number of Freedom Caucus members in committee chairmanships and on the House Rules Committee. This is a totally self-serving rule request from the Freedom Caucus. I would not support it if I were a Republican member, but I don't think it's "radical" for the caucus to try to use this moment to increase their power and sway in the party.
  • Decline to raise debt ceiling without a plan to cap spending and balance the federal budget in 10 years. We'll talk more about the debt ceiling debate soon, but put simply, this is the most radical of all the proposals. It would raise the prospect of economic disaster (for the country) or political disaster (for Republicans) and should be discarded outright.
  • Do not “return to the blind embrace of earmarks.” The practice of directing federal spending to a specific recipient or project was brought back in this Congress as “community project funding” after a decade-long ban. The House Republican Conference last month voted overwhelmingly against an internal proposal to ban the practice. There are very good arguments both for and against earmarks (or “pork,” as they’re commonly known). We covered them here.
  • Use “must-pass” bills like the annual defense authorization bill and the farm bill as leverage to secure conservative priorities and “check the Biden administration.” If you are interested in grinding the Biden administration to a halt, this is a smart way to do it. The Freedom Caucus is asking Republicans to play more hard ball. They believe this is a reflection of the base's sentiment after feeling steamrolled by Biden the last two years. Again: I don't support leveraging must-pass bills to disrupt Congress, but it's something Democrats have been doing, and Republicans could certainly be more disruptive with a commitment like this.
  • Create a panel in the style of a “Church Committee” to target “weaponized government.” While McCarthy and House Republicans have promised extensive investigations into the Biden administration and alleged politicization of federal agencies, some, like [Rep. Chip] Roy, think the plans do not go far enough. This rule is basically a nothingburger. House Republicans have a majority and will run committees. They'll be able to investigate whatever they want so long as they can get other members on board.

So, those are the demands. I don't know which or how many (if any) McCarthy will cede in an attempt to sway one or two of the members opposing him, but I don't think it would be totally unreasonable to explore some of them.

Either way, unless Republicans have a legitimate alternative, McCarthy is the guy. He should — and I think probably will — end up as the next House Speaker.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Do you believe or have you heard any news about Dr. Fauci being the subject of a criminal or even non-criminal (possibly the next congress) investigation? I have friends who are convinced he will be charged, prosecuted, and convicted of a COVID-19 related crime, but I am not seeing this anywhere and wonder if there is some truth to it or if it's simply an unfounded conspiracy theory.

— David from Kansas City, Missouri

Tangle: I think it is basically a guarantee that Dr. Fauci will have to testify before Congress next year. House Republicans are committed to fleshing out our early response to Covid-19, the origins of the virus, and ensuring that any mistakes Fauci made are filed into the historical record. I think you can basically take the prospect of these high-profile hearings to the bank. They will happen, and Fauci has said he will cooperate.

As for being charged, prosecuted or convicted — I have no idea. What would he be charged with? I ask that genuinely. I've seen some theories from right-wing YouTube accounts that Fauci will face charges for racketeering or other self-serving crimes, but those accusations are always very vague. Maybe there is a way to pin him on lying to Congress, if someone can prove that he knowingly misled members in previous testimony on gain-of-function research or other issues he has testified about. Again, though, I'd need more specificity.

Ultimately, I find the prospect of Fauci in an orange jumpsuit rather absurd. Not because I am certain he has never committed a crime — I'm not! — but because I haven't seen any clear, specific charge against him, nor any well-organized effort from qualified people to charge him with any criminal activity.

That's probably because Fauci, while a highly important and public-facing expert for the Trump administration, was only part of a massive organizational effort. Decisions he made did not happen in isolation and any criminal charges for mishaps during the pandemic would be very, very difficult to peg on him alone. So, no, I think Fauci facing criminal charges is pretty unlikely. But I'll be very curious to hear his testimony on Covid-19 in front of the next Congress.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The FBI issued a little-noticed public safety alert warning of "sextortion" schemes targeting kids and teenagers. The agency said it has received over 7,000 reports of such schemes where a victim is coerced into sending explicit images online and then extorted for money or gift cards on the threat of making the images public. Several suicides have been linked to the scheme, and the primary targets are often minor boys. The FBI says the schemes usually take place on social media platforms, gaming websites and video chat apps from predators posing online as women. Axios has the story.


  • Nine. The number of votes it took to resolve the last floor fight over House Speaker, which happened in 1923.
  • 19. The number of days Congress went without a House Speaker over a similar dispute in 1849.
  • 34%. The percentage of all Republican/lean-Republican voters who say they have never heard of Kevin McCarthy.
  • 34-29. McCarthy's favorable-unfavorable rating among Republican/lean-Republican voters who have heard of him.
  • 73%. The number of voters who reported seeing, reading or hearing a lot about the May 24 mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, making it the most salient news story of 2022.
  • 71%. The number of voters who reported seeing, reading or hearing a lot about the Queen's death and the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson decision, making them the second most salient news stories of 2022.

Have a nice day.

More than two decades ago, Ayda Zugay was on a plane to the United States with her sister, fleeing civil war in former Yugoslavia. Zugay vividly remembers the fear of flying to a foreign country, but also a kind stranger who ended up in the seat next to her. She comforted Zugay and her sister during the flight, then handed them an envelope: "I hope your stay in America will be a safe and happy one," signed, "A friend from the plane, Tracy." Inside was a $100 bill. A few years ago, Zugay put out a note on social media in hopes of finding the friendly stranger. A few months later, a friend recognized Tracy's handwriting in a story about the piece in CNN. You know what happened next. CBS News has the story of their reunion.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.