For Kevin McCarthy, an unsteady ladder to the top

In this Nov. 17, 2014 file photo, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., departs an orientation luncheon for newly-elected GOP members of the House, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In this Nov. 17, 2014 file photo, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., departs an orientation luncheon for newly-elected GOP members of the House, on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

California’s Kevin McCarthy is poised to become a leader on a short leash, the wounded general of a querulous army.

In a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Thursday, the 50-year-old Bakersfield native expects to secure his party’s nomination as speaker of the House of Representatives. But in working to fend off conservative challenges, for now, McCarthy has exposed the flaws and fault lines that will complicate his job.

The fact that two Republicans are challenging him underscores the House GOP’s enduring divisions. And an early rhetorical stumble drained McCarthy of some political juice at a crucial time and set up that clout-depleting Washington institution: the gaffe watch.

“He has to figure out how to get much better, much more effective at communications, so that people feel like we’re on offense in trying to change the government and take on (the) president,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in an interview. “It will be helpful for him to figure it out in the next two to three weeks.”

No one doubts the current House majority leader will muster the votes for nomination at the late-morning Republican caucus meeting held in the Longworth House Office Building.

“Kevin is going to have well over the sufficient votes needed,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a close McCarthy ally.

McCarthy will then need at least 218 votes when the full House chooses the replacement for House Speaker John Boehner on Oct. 29.

Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, who along with Florida Republican Daniel Webster is challenging McCarthy, insists that the combination of Democrats and restive Republicans could be enough to deny McCarthy the speakership once the full House votes. That appears very unlikely.

It’s what comes next that counts.

Chaffetz already has said that he expects to retain chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform even if he loses his challenge. While payback would not play well among dissidents, a politician’s ability to mutiny without consequence underscores the House leadership’s weakened state.

The ambitious 48-year-old Chaffetz already knows this, as he was himself previously forced to restore under conservatives’ pressure a subcommittee chairmanship taken from a lawmaker, North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows, who challenged Boehner.

Meadows belongs to the House Freedom Caucus, a 40-odd member coalition of uncompromising conservatives who made Boehner’s life miserable and ultimately helped drive him from the speaker’s office. If they stick together, they can deny McCarthy the ability to pass legislation unless he makes the leadership-threatening decision to rely on Democrats.

The good news for McCarthy, his GOP allies note, is that Republicans have a 247-188 margin over Democrats, giving leadership some wiggle room.

“When you have cycles like this, you’re going to have very hardline people who are impossible to appease, and they’re going to have demands that are hopeless. What you’ve got to do is keep them below the (crucial) number,” Gingrich said. “On any given day, he can lose 20 to 25 people and still be OK.”

As speaker, McCarthy likely would find hardline conservatives nipping at his heels. In some corners, the gnawing already has begun.

McCarthy registered a 61 percent on Heritage Action for America’s conservative scorecard of the current Congress, scoring below the 68 percent average for House Republicans. McCarthy came in at 43 percent in the Club for Growth’s 2014 congressional scorecard, though he has a lifetime average of 73 percent with the group.

“Rather than fighting for conservative principles, he has continually cut deals and enacted liberal policies with the prime focus of ensuring the Republican Party stays in power,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate who is now president of the Senate Conservatives Fund.

Dan Holler, Heritage Action’s communications director, said conservatives may view a McCarthy speakership as the same old, same old.

“If everybody moves up a rung, members will probably go home and be asked what’s changed in the leadership?” Holler said. “The leash will be short.”

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., predicted the new speaker will have to act quickly to show a change from Boehner.

“It’s important for them to demonstrate a reset,” Franks said. “I think they have to do it in the next six months. . . . It’s important for them to be able to gain their footing here for the coming election.”

The conservative pressure, in turn, would likely make McCarthy think twice, or thrice, about cutting deals with House Democrats. With Senate Democrats wielding filibuster power, and the Democratic president holding a veto pen, this could become a formula for gridlock.

Democrats, for their part, have been starting off their relationship with the speaker-in-waiting with a series of slaps, invited by McCarthy’s own declaration on Fox News that a special House committee has succeeded in driving down Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers.

“Even before Rep. McCarthy’s comments laid bare the true intent of the committee, it’s been clear that Hillary Clinton has always been the focus,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Wednesday.

Underscoring the political opening created by McCarthy’s words, despite his subsequent clarifications, House Democrats on Wednesday forced a vote on their effort to eliminate the so-called Benghazi committee. It failed, inevitably, but also kept the heat on a leader who’s still finding his way.

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