WASHINGTON—As Nancy Pelosi wrangles votes in her bid for House speaker, another leadership battle is playing out on the Republican side, where Kevin McCarthy faces a challenge from conservative Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan to lead the new GOP minority.
Republicans lost the House majority in this week's midterm elections, and conservatives are blaming the GOP establishment and angling for changes. McCarthy burned up the phone lines Thursday shoring up his support. And down ballot, the GOP will add a familiar name to the leadership lineup—Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney who announced her bid for the No. 3 GOP leadership spot.
But the bigger battle continues to play out on the other side, where Democrats hold a slim majority, now at 225 seats. That leaves Pelosi little room for error as she rounds up the 218 votes needed to become the first woman to reclaim the speaker's gavel.
Pelosi's opponents said they were mobilizing Thursday and discussing writing a letter to show there are enough votes to block her from becoming speaker. Foes have tried to oust Pelosi before. But this time, they say their effort could show some two dozen new and returning House Democrats who won't give her their vote. On the campaign trail, several candidates said they'd oppose her.
"We have enough," said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., one of those who described the effort.
The group was still deciding whether to draft the letter or state their case in person to Pelosi when House Democrats meet privately in the days ahead, he said. "If you add in all the recently elected members who have said they're not voting for Pelosi in our opening salvo, the math isn't there. She doesn't have the votes," Schrader said.
Pelosi's allies quickly swatted back the claim as exaggerated. She said this week she's confident she'll be speaker, and even got a boost from President Donald Trump, who said he'd like to work with her. Several House races remain undecided, and her hold on the majority could grow if other Democrats are elected.
"Leader Pelosi is confident in her support," said spokesman Drew Hammill.
Allies point out her opponents actually lost ground Thursday in a separate effort to challenge her leadership by revising the caucus rules for House Democrats.
Congress returns next week to begin sorting out new leadership after eight years of Republican power. Closed-door sessions of voting for leadership positions will set the stage for the speaker's election in January, when the new members of Congress take their first votes.
On the GOP side, McCarthy, the House majority leader who is close to Trump, is favored for the top spot in the minority, but he has struggled to shore up support from the GOP's right flank of lawmakers. They have been skeptical of the California Republican and questioned his conservative bonafides. Some would prefer to elect a street fighter who will confront Pelosi's Democrats in the new House majority.
Trump signaled he'd be happy with McCarthy, but he's also promoted Jordan, the Ohio Republican, who is a regular on Fox News and popular with conservative groups beyond Washington.
On Thursday, McCarthy was calling colleagues, pledging to fight Democrats and win back the majority.
McCarthy promised "to use every tool at our disposal to deliberately challenge House Democrats" and protect Trump's agenda. In a letter to colleagues, he acknowledged losing the majority was "difficult" and said the road ahead would be hard. "I expect us to win back the House."
To become minority leader, McCarthy would need support from half the Republicans in the House. Their tally now stands at 197, but some races remain undecided. Jordan is expected to pick up support from dozens of members.
Jordan's bid remains a longshot, but he's making inroads into leadership for the Freedom Caucus, whose members want a seat at the table. His supporters outside the Capitol are revving up to support him.
"Are you going to elect the same people who lost the election, or are you going to elect someone new?" asked Adam Brandon, president of the conservative group FreedomWorks, which announced its support Thursday for Jordan.
If McCarthy and Jordan both fall short, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the GOP whip who was seriously wounded in last year's shooting at a congressional baseball team practice, could swoop in. For now, he's running to keep his position as vote counter.