By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The new Republican-held U.S. House of Representatives convenes on Tuesday for what could be a chaotic election for speaker, as top Republican Kevin McCarthy fights to overcome opposition from hardline conservatives and win the powerful position.
A protracted speaker election could undermine House Republican hopes of moving forward quickly on investigations into Democratic President Joe Biden's administration and his family, as well as on legislative priorities involving the economy, U.S. energy independence and border security.
After four years as the Republican minority leader, McCarthy now needs at least 218 votes to succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker. With 222 seats, the Republicans have a slim nine-seat House majority, but several party members vocally oppose him.
On Sunday evening, Republican lawmakers who were prepared to vote against McCarthy numbered in the double digits, according to a source familiar with the situation.
No Democrats are likely to vote for McCarthy, so he does not yet appear to have enough votes to secure the job that would allow him to set the House legislative agenda and put him second in line for the presidency, behind Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris.
This could set the stage for hours of votes when the 118th Congress begins meeting at midday EST (1700 GMT). McCarthy easily won his party's backing for the speakership in November.
Asked on Monday whether he had the votes, McCarthy, who failed to win the speakership in 2015, told reporters at the Capitol: "I think we're going to have a good day tomorrow."
The California Republican met late on Monday with hardliners and supporters, but there was no immediate sign of a breakthrough. House Republicans are expected to meet face-to-face behind closed doors on Tuesday morning, ahead of the speaker election.
Representative Don Bacon, a McCarthy supporter, wrote on the online conservative news website Daily Caller that he could reach across the aisle to find Democratic support for an unidentified Republican candidate if hardliners did not to relent.
While Republicans have won back the House, Democrats still hold the White House and Senate. Standoffs are expected over must-pass legislation to keep the government open, fund the military and address the U.S. debt ceiling.
McCarthy faces a long-shot rival bid from hardline conservative Representative Andy Biggs. Along with Biggs, Republican Representatives Matt Gaetz, Bob Good, Matt Rosendale and Ralph Norman oppose electing him speaker.
"I won't be voting for Kevin McCarthy tomorrow. He's part of the problem. He's not part of the solution," Good told Fox News on Monday.
'TAKES TWO TO TANGO'
The record number of voting rounds to elect a House speaker is 133 over a two-month period in the 1850s. Every nominee in the last 100 years has succeeded on the first ballot.
A standoff would leave the House largely paralyzed and could force lawmakers to consider another candidate. Incoming Majority Leader Steve Scalise and conservative leader Jim Jordan are seen as possibilities.
But 15 House Republicans - elected from districts Biden won in 2020 - have warned that they will accept no one for speaker other than McCarthy.
Strategists from both parties warn that larger problems could lie ahead for Congress if the House Republicans are left too divided to negotiate with Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
"If the Republicans stick together, Democrats in the Senate will have to wrap their heads around a much more conservative product than they are accustomed (to) in order to pass anything," said Republican strategist Josh Holmes, a former McConnell aide.
Democratic strategist Jim Manley said that if Biden and Schumer did not have a House Republican with authority to negotiate with, then very little would get done, adding: "It takes two to tango."
The hardline Republican House Freedom Caucus is demanding rule changes that would enhance the group's influence. Moderate Republicans have said they will accept rule changes only if doing so leads to McCarthy's election as speaker.
But some of McCarthy opponents, including Biggs and Gaetz, have suggested they would not back him under any circumstances.
The Democrats have picked Hakeem Jeffries to serve as minority leader after Pelosi, the first woman to serve as speaker, stepped down from leadership. She will remain in office as a representative.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone, Michelle Nichols and Bradley Perrett)