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House Minority Leader faces an early test of party loyalty

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has been nominated by fellow Republicans to serve as the next speaker of the House. Now, control of the House is still unclear, with several races not yet called, but Republicans are on track to hold a slim majority in January. McCarthy easily beat out a conservative challenger, but is dealing with criticism from his fellow Republicans that he will still have to address before an official vote by the full House in January. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now. Hey, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So McCarthy took a lot of heat after his party underperformed in last week's elections. I'm just curious. How much do you think that affected today's outcome?

WALSH: Well, it definitely showed there's still a lot of unrest. McCarthy got 188 votes. His challenger, conservative Arizona Congressman Andy Biggs, got 31 votes. Biggs argued it was time to change the status quo after the red wave that McCarthy and other top House Republican leaders predicted didn't happen. We should note that others who've run for speaker in the past have faced challenges inside their party. Former Speaker Paul Ryan had over 40 GOP colleagues oppose his nomination, but he ultimately prevailed. Nancy Pelosi also had defections in the past.

CHANG: That's right. OK. So what does the challenge from Biggs mean for the official vote in January, you think?

WALSH: I think today, it was mostly symbolic. But it does show McCarthy still has work to do to unite House Republicans. He still has to get 218 votes or a majority of those voting on the floor in January when the new Congress is sworn in to get the speaker's gavel. Many of the conservatives who pushed for a leadership shakeup feel like only a small number of members, mostly leaders, get any real say in the way the House operates. One of those backing Congressman Biggs was Congressman Bob Good, a Republican from Georgia. He said the group wants commitments from McCarthy that they can offer amendments and impact how bills come up for votes.

BOB GOOD: This is about empowering the American people through their elected representatives, empowering regular members to have the control of Congress, control the legislative process, and to give us the ability to truly fight against the radical Biden-Pelosi agenda.

WALSH: But I talked to Arizona Republican Dave Schweikert, who backed McCarthy. He downplayed the resistance from the conservative bloc. And he thinks, ultimately, they're going to come around.

DAVE SCHWEIKERT: If it allows a number of members to be heard and not feel put aside, it actually is part of the healing process.

CHANG: The healing process. What did McCarthy have to say to people who didn't back him?

WALSH: Well, after the vote inside the room, he told House Republicans he planned to be inclusive, to listen to all the factions, including those from the conservative House Freedom Caucus who backed Biggs. But what that means in the coming weeks is kind of unclear. He's going to face a lot of pressure to agree to demands from those on the far right. And more moderate members who just won in more purple districts are going to want McCarthy to push back. One House Republican, Darrell Issa, who backed McCarthy, admitted the process could be tumultuous, but said McCarthy will ultimately be elected speaker.

CHANG: Well, what about the other chamber, Deirdre? Because Senate Republicans weren't able to flip enough seats to take control of the Senate. So are we seeing any fallout from that for Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader?

WALSH: We are seeing some. This was the first time Senate Republicans got together since the election. And there was a lot of grumbling, especially from a small group of Senate Republicans who wanted to delay their leadership election until after the runoff in December 6. There's one outstanding Senate race in Georgia. Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott, who ran the Senate GOP's campaign arm, announced today he's going to challenge McConnell for the top Republican leadership post. That election is supposed to take place tomorrow. But McConnell is expected to win. After the sit-down with his members, he said he welcomed the contest. This is the real first, real challenge McConnell has had since he's run for leadership posts. And it just shows that Republicans on Capitol Hill are still really unhappy with how things went and trying to figure out how to move forward.

CHANG: That is NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you, Deirdre.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.