Kevin McCarthy faces high-wire act as Republicans close in on U.S. House majority

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -With Republicans closing in on a narrower-than-expected U.S. House of Representatives majority, their leader Kevin McCarthy took a step on Tuesday toward becoming speaker of the House, a job he has long coveted.

He may get another tough job as well - tightrope walker.

McCarthy, 57, is the presumptive favorite to replace fellow Californian Nancy Pelosi in January as House speaker - a job with a lot of clout and a lot of headaches. As speaker, McCarthy would be well placed to frustrate Democratic President Joe Biden's legislative ambitions.

McCarthy overcame a challenge from hard-line conservative Representative Andy Biggs in Republican House leadership elections on Tuesday, winning a caucus vote by 188-31, according to a source familiar with the outcome.

McCarthy would only be elected formally as speaker when the new Congress takes office in January, presuming Republicans take the majority as expected.

Representative Steve Scalise, who was elected on Tuesday to serve as majority leader in a Republican-led House, shrugged off suggestions McCarthy could face hurdles when the House votes for speaker in January.

"The elections were intense. But we're going to win the majority. And we talked a lot about what we're going to do to get this country back on track. And that's where our focus is," Scalise told reporters.

But other Republicans said McCarthy could be in for a tumultuous journey to the speakership next year.

One of his most dedicated opponents, Representative Matt Gaetz, predicted as few as five Republicans would be able to block McCarthy's candidacy in a narrowly divided chamber.

"It's my expectation that we'll find somebody in that room who doesn't have five folks who want to vote against him. But it won't be Kevin McCarthy," Gaetz told reporters.

McCarthy has spent his adult life in politics - as a congressional staffer, then state legislator before being elected to the House in 2006.

Ascending to the speakership - a position second in the line of succession to the U.S. presidency - would represent the pinnacle of a McCarthy's career, but it could be a precarious position. As speaker, he would have to manage a House Republican caucus moving ever rightward, with uncompromising tendencies and close allegiances to former President Donald Trump.

"House Republican leadership has a lot less margin for error. The House will more closely resemble the Senate, where a handful of members can grind things to a halt very quickly," Republican strategist Alex Conant said. "McCarthy is left with a more populist caucus that will likely push him further to the right."

With votes still being counted in some pivotal races a week after the midterm elections, Republicans appear to be on the verge of securing a razor-thin House majority. They are currently still two seats away, according to Edison Research, from claiming control of the 435-seat chamber from the Democrats.

Republicans fell short of the "red wave" that some had predicted for a comfortable House majority and control of the Senate. Instead, the Democrats retained their Senate majority, meaning the two parties will need to work together to pass legislation if Republicans do take the House.

'MIGRAINE HEADACHES'

House Republicans increasingly are embracing right-wing populism and the pugilistic style of Trump, who is expected to launch his 2024 presidential candidacy on Tuesday.

Republican hard-liners from the conservative House Freedom Caucus are demanding rules changes that would allow them to keep a tight rein on their leader and toss him out more easily if they sour on him. The last two Republican House speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, came under varying degrees of pressure from the right flank of the Republican caucus.

"Kevin McCarthy is going to have a lot of migraine headaches," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "This is the first salvo, even before McCarthy gets to become speaker - the first in what is likely to be a number of high-profile negotiations over the next two years."

As speaker, McCarthy could force votes focusing attention on issues Republicans view as advantageous to them - inflation, energy policy and crime - and launch investigations into Biden's administration and family. McCarthy would also have to corral his caucus into voting for must-pass pieces of legislation to keep the government open, fund the military and in 2023 address the fast-approaching U.S. debt ceiling.

Republicans are contemplating a raft of investigations of Biden and his administration, as well as U.S. border security, immigration, China, the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden's chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the FBI's seizure of classified documents from Trump's Florida home.

McCarthy was considered the favorite for speaker after Boehner announced his resignation from the post in 2015. But McCarthy withdrew in the face of conservative opposition. Instead, the speakership went to a reluctant Ryan, who decided not to seek re-election to Congress in 2018.

The challenge by Biggs, one among a number of conservatives who blame McCarthy for the underwhelming performance by Republicans in the midterms, was indicative of the issues he may face in managing his party's most conservative elements. But McCarthy has the support of Jim Jordan, one of the most influential conservative voices in the House.

House Freedom Caucus members want to restore the ability of any member to make a motion to call for the removal of the speaker. In 2015, such a move - called a motion to vacate the chair - preceded Boehner's resignation. The Freedom Caucus also wants the House to consider only legislation supported by a majority of Republicans and would have committee chairs selected by committee members, rather than party leaders.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Jason Lange and Gram Slattery; Editing by Will Dunham, Scott Malone, Alistair Bell and Lincoln Feast.)