WASHINGTON (AP) -- Top House Republican Kevin McCarthy publicly endorsed Rep. Elise Stefanik for the post of No. 3 leader, cementing party support of the Donald Trump loyalist over Rep. Liz Cheney, an outspoken critic of the former president for promoting discredited claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
House Republicans could vote as early as Wednesday to remove Cheney, the highest-ranking woman in the Republican leadership and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and replace her with Stefanik, whose ascension has received Trump's backing.
Asked in an interview on Fox News Channel's "Sunday Morning Futures" whether he supported Stefanik, R-N.Y., for the job of Republican Conference chair, McCarthy responded: "Yes, I do."
"We want to be united in moving forward, and I think that is what will take place," he said in response to a question about whether he had the votes to oust Cheney, R-Wyo.
McCarthy said the leadership post must focus on a message "day in and day out" on what he said were the problems of the Biden administration.
Cheney has taken on Republicans, including McCarthy, R-Calif., saying those who indulge Trump's false claims of a stolen presidential election are "spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system." In an opinion essay Wednesday in The Washington Post, she denounced the "dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality," and warned her fellow Republicans against embracing or ignoring his statements "for fundraising and political purposes."
She also said McCarthy had "changed his story" after initially saying Trump "bears responsibility" for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. McCarthy initially criticized Trump's actions, and in a private call during the insurrection, had urged the then-president to call off the rioters. The GOP leader now says he does not believe Trump provoked the riot.
McCarthy on Sunday denied that Republicans' effort to remove Cheney was based on her views of Trump or being one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 riot. He said she was distracting from Republicans' bid to win back the House in 2022 and successfully oppose President Joe Biden's agenda, goals that McCarthy believes will need Trump's support.
McCarthy complained last week that he had "lost confidence" in Cheney and "had it with her" over her continuing remarks about Trump, according to a leaked recording of his exchange on "Fox and Friends."
Cheney actually has a more conservative voting record in the House than Stefanik, a onetime Trump critic who evolved into an ardent ally. She previously opposed Trump's tax cuts.
"You have this real battle right now in the party, this idea of let's just put our differences aside and be unified," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who also voted to impeach Trump. "They're going to get rid of Liz Cheney because they'd much rather pretend that the conspiracy is either real or not confront it than to actually confront it and maybe have to take the temporary licks to save this party and, in the long term, this country," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
The second-ranking House Republican leader, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, already has announced his support for Stefanik.