WASHINGTON (AP) — The House's most hard-edged conservatives are anxious to derail Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's bid to become speaker, but they're outnumbered and their chosen candidate lacks support. That leaves the Californian the heavy favorite when Republicans pick their candidate to replace John Boehner on Thursday.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus announced Wednesday that the group of several dozen rebellious conservatives would support longshot Republican Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida for speaker. But with McCarthy expected to win Thursday's vote anyway, many were looking ahead to Oct. 29, when the full House formally elects the next speaker.
"Most of us have recognized that what happens tomorrow is really not the fight. It's about the floor," said Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, a Freedom Caucus member.
With Democrats sure to support one of their own, the GOP nominee will need 218 of the 247 House Republicans next month, a majority of the 435-member House. Conservatives say they'll use that threshold to make demands in exchange for their support, perhaps promises to stop punishing Republicans who disobey leaders and to give rank-and-file lawmakers more power to pick committee chairs.
To wield leverage, the conservatives will need to remain unified — something that has at times eluded the fractious group and drawn derision from more pragmatic GOP colleagues. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., mocked their previous "Keystone Kops efforts" to deny Boehner the speakership, when the conservatives opposed the Ohio Republican's election but splintered their votes among six candidates in January 2013 and nine candidates last January.
Still, pressure from the conservatives helped force last month's abrupt announcement by Boehner that he will leave Congress Oct. 30. By opposing legislation they considered too accommodating to Democrats, they have caused repeated headaches for Boehner ever since the GOP, fueled by grass-roots tea party outrage, recaptured control of the chamber in the 2010 elections.
Backed by tea party and other conservative organizations, they've long accused Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, of timid efforts against President Barack Obama's agenda.
Now, many want to make sure the speaker's post doesn't go to McCarthy, Boehner's top lieutenant. They consider him part of a leadership team that's been too quick to retreat on issues like cutting Planned Parenthood's federal funds and too willing to punish Republicans who don't follow their lead. Some conservatives who've clashed with leaders have been removed from coveted committee seats.
"Folks are tired of going to work at a body that doesn't matter," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina. "And we're tired of a leadership who begins a discussion by saying we don't matter. And I think that may ultimately have been John's undoing."
In backing Webster, a former speaker of the Florida House who mounted an unsuccessful past effort to oust Boehner, the Freedom Caucus is getting behind a candidate with little realistic shot of prevailing. But if they stick together on the floor vote, they could deny McCarthy a majority, leading the House into uncertain territory and perhaps increasing their leverage to push demands for rules changes or other concessions.
The third candidate for speaker is Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
As the GOP's numbers have grown — their House membership is their largest total in over 80 years — conservative lawmakers have organized into several organizations with overlapping membership. These include the Tea Party Caucus, the Conservative Opportunity Society and the Republican Study Committee.
Most rambunctious has been the Freedom Caucus, which has frequently mutinied against Boehner since its formation in January. Its members gather weekly in a private basement room in the Tortilla Coast restaurant on Capitol Hill for strategy sessions.
Their stated goal is to represent "countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them. We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety and prosperity of all Americans."
The group won't release its membership list but claims around 40 members. As one measure of its rebelliousness, 15 of the 25 Republicans who opposed Boehner when the House re-elected him speaker in January appear on one unofficial list of its members, and nearly two-thirds came to the House in the tea party wave of 2010 or later.
Freedom Caucus members also come disproportionately from Southern and Southwestern states and GOP-dominated House districts where their chief re-election worry is a potential Republican primary challenge.
But where they see principled efforts to force party leaders to fight aggressively, more moderate Republicans perceive hardliners with the clout to say "no" but the power and vision to achieve little else.
The caucus "has a very hard time getting to 'yes,'" said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. "The perfect is always the enemy of the good."
Others say the caucus is always threatening to force the GOP into fights that can only hurt the party, such as the 2013 partial government shutdown that the public blamed on Republicans.
"If we become the party of shutdowns, showdowns, cliffs and congressional dysfunction, that will undercut our own presidential nominee," said Cole, who's close to Boehner.
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.