Kevin McCarthy is trying to shore up his conservative bona fides as pro-Trump lawmakers threaten his speakership bid

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Three weeks before the midterm elections Kevin McCarthy raged the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus after the GOP leader publicly suggested he has yet to see any criminal offenses committed by the Biden administration.

Hardline Republicans – who have been agitating for impeachment President Joe Biden or a member of his cabinet — sounded off on McCarthy in a group chat and expressed deep concern about his comments, according to GOP sources familiar with the internal conversations.

But two weeks after the election, in which Republicans underperformed and won a slimmer-than-expected majority, putting McCarthy’s House speaker bid in jeopardy, McCarthy struck a different note: He called on Homeland Security Secretary. Alexander Mayorkas resigns, accused him of lying to the American public and failing to enforce immigration laws and threatened to impeach him if he did not step aside. A spokeswoman for Mayorkas said he has no plans to resign.

The change in tune from McCarthy comes at a crucial time for the California Republican, who is facing a rebellion from his right wing that could back his speaker ambitions that have been years in the making. McCarthy’s new impeachment threat is just one of several ways he hopes to win over conservative critics and lock in the 218 votes needed to become speaker in January. McCarthy is taking a carrot-over-a-stick approach, using a mix of private negotiations and public professions about what he would do as speaker in an attempt to pick out critics.

But it is unclear whether his public and private maneuvering will be enough to ease the holdups. Regarding McCarthy’s impeachment and calls to walk away from the border, a member of the House Freedom Caucus said he is “pandering.”

“In fact, it was counterproductive,” the GOP lawmaker told CNN. “He didn’t say that because he thought he would get a large majority. He does all these things because he has a slim majority and every vote counts. … I just don’t think it’s going to produce the result that he’s hoping for.”

Another member who has been critical of McCarthy called his move a “step” in the right direction, but said “he should have said it earlier” and wanted McCarthy’s statement accompanied by a “funding threat” to show , that he really means business.

However, McCarthy’s allies insist he will make it, arguing that no one else is better equipped for the job. Another reason for their confidence: they don’t see that anyone else in the conference can get to 218. And they think McCarthy will take his battle for the speaker’s gavel all the way to the floor, unlike in 2015, when he fell out of the race before he even made it to the closed-door conference vote.

“In general, most members think McCarthy is going to pull this off. They don’t really know how. We can’t necessarily articulate how he’s going to pull this off,” Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, who supports McCarthy, told CNN. But there is a sense that he is a very savvy operator, he really understands the members, he really understands politics and his team is really top notch.”

“There’s a little trepidation among members who support McCarthy because we don’t quite see how he’s going to pull this off,” he added, “but there’s a general sense that he will.”

So far, at least five House Republicans have publicly threatened to oppose McCarthy on the floor, which could be enough to derail his bid for the speakership if Republicans only have a four-seat margin, as McCarthy has predicted. They include reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Ralph Norman of South Carolina and Bob Good of Virginia.

And there may be more names to come, as the anti-McCarthy group has purposely been dropping names over a long period of time – a strategy designed to get more attention from the leadership. Three dozen Republicans voted against McCarthy during the GOP’s internal leadership election last week, in which McCarthy was nominated by his party for speaker.

“The strategy is to drip out a name every four or five days or every week, just to make sure people know it. It’s not just four or five,” one of the GOP lawmakers said.

McCarthy will have to somehow get at least one of those members to reverse their vote or convince them to either “vote present” or skip the floor – which would lower the threshold he needs to become speaker . Some of the Republicans in the “Never Kevin” camp are seen as slightly more palatable: Rosendale, for example, told CNN he would only vote for McCarthy “under extreme circumstances,” leaving himself the tiniest bit of wiggle room.

So far, McCarthy has yet to cut any major deals, but is currently negotiating with the House Freedom Caucus on a package of potential rule changes. The group is also pushing him to take a public stance on a number of issues, according to GOP sources familiar with the negotiations. Right now, though, they feel the ball is in McCarthy’s court.

McCarthy, wary of appearing to be making secret side deals with his right wing and alienating some of the more moderate members, has also tried to appeal to conservatives with more public-facing moves.

He recently reiterated a promise to replace the reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Eric Swalwell of California and Adam Schiff of California — three Democrats who have been routinely vilified on the right — from key committee jobs. And McCarthy has also recently promised to do away with remote voting, reopen the House and start each day in session with a pledge and a prayer — even though the House already does that every day.

Burned by the Freedom Caucus during his quest for the speaker’s gavel in 2015, McCarthy’s maneuvering for the speakership began long before the midterms.

Over the past year, he worked to bring freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a former McCarthy critic and staunch Trump ally, into the fold. He has held weekly sit-downs with Greene, invited her to House GOP tours of the southern border and in Pittsburgh and has supported her in seeking a coveted seat on the House Oversight Committee. His efforts seem to have paid off, as Greene is now vocally backing McCarthy as speaker.

In the same way, rep is seen. Jim Jordan of Ohio — who once challenged McCarthy for leadership — now a staunch McCarthy ally, in part because McCarthy paved the way for him to head the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Jordan has also rallied behind McCarthy’s speaker’s bid, telling CNN he’s urging other Republicans to do the same.

Jordan also wouldn’t ask questions about any scenario in which he would run for the job — like if McCarthy can’t reach 218. “I want to be chairman of the judiciary,” he said.

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