Rep. Kevin McCarthy was elected speaker of the House early Saturday, after a grueling days-long fight laid bare the divisions between parties – and within his own – in a dismal foreshadowing of the legislative process under the GOP majority in the next two years.
The California Republican succeeded in swaying remaining holdouts to clinch the votes that appeared out of reach just days ago when ballot after ballot yielded almost no progress in a marathon week of voting unlike any speaker election since the Civil War. But on Friday morning, the tide began to shift for McCarthy, after negotiations earlier in the week progressed toward a deal, earning him 216 votes to secure the gavel in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
“It just reminds me of what my father always told me – it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” McCarthy said after the House adjourned ahead of the final vote on Friday. “And now we have to finish for the American public.”
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By Friday afternoon, before lawmakers adjourned for a number of hours to secure the final votes, only six GOP holdouts remained: Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Rep. Bob Good of Virginia and Rep. Matt Rosendale of Arizona – some of the first to publicly express opposition to McCarthy’s bid for speaker.
During a first vote Friday night, in which McCarthy and his supporters appeared convinced they had secured the necessary support, Biggs remained opposed to McCarthy, voting instead for Jordan, joined by Good. Rosendale and Crane voted for Biggs. But two of the most vocal detractors this week – Gaetz and Boebert – voted present on the late-night vote. Since McCarthy was required to take a majority of those who voted for a specific person – not including those who voted present – he was still left one vote short of his goal.
As time ticked on the 14th ballot, McCarthy personally walked over and appeared to attempt to persuade them to change their votes to support him. With all eyes on the pair, each of whom had the power to grant McCarthy the speakership with their support, neither appeared willing to change their vote. And in a stunning scene, GOP Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama appeared to lunge toward Gaetz before being restrained by a colleague. After a fleeting attempt to adjourn, the chamber proceeded to another vote.
On the 15th vote, Biggs, Crane, Good and Rosendale relented, voting present with Gaetz and Boebert, lowering the threshold of votes McCarthy needed to win and giving him the majority he needed to secure the speakership.
For the Bakersfield native who was first elected to the chamber in 2007, the road to the speakership has been a lengthy one, perhaps first envisioned more than a decade ago when he became known as one of the three “young guns” expected to take up the helm of the party when the time came for a new generation. But in 2015, McCarthy’s speaker bid abruptly ended amid pushback from right-wing lawmakers who have long seen him as insufficiently conservative.
This week, a similar group threatened to derail McCarthy’s speaker ambitions once again. But perhaps strengthened by his time as GOP leader, his relationship with former President Donald Trump, strategic alliances with lawmakers like Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and fundraising for his conference, he pulled out a win on Saturday – albeit by the skin of his teeth.
Indeed, McCarthy’s bid for speaker, which seemed much more secure just months ago, became murky after a meager showing from his party in the midterm elections instead of a “red wave” and an onslaught of intra-party accusations about who is to blame that followed. And despite last-ditch efforts to unite his conference in the weeks leading up to the speaker votes, his 20 or so detractors were steadfast across almost a dozen ballots this week, before peeling off when an agreement came within reach on Friday.
McCarthy’s speakership woes have been on display since his party conducted leadership elections in the days following the midterm elections. Though he won his party’s nomination handily, with 188 votes to 31 votes for his opponent, Biggs, the showdown signaled McCarthy’s upcoming troubles to attain the speakership.
His ultimate win came with a number of concessions, as several outlets reported that McCarthy granted various request from the group – including a rule that would lower the threshold required to call for a vote to oust a speaker to just one lawmaker, appointing more members of the House Freedom Caucus to powerful committees and promising to hold votes on border security bills and term limits for House members. Reports also emerged that McCarthy is considering as much as $75 billion in cuts to the defense budget meant to help Ukraine defend against Russia’s unprovoked invasion in order to win over holdouts who have balked at the idea of writing a “blank check” to Kyiv with American taxpayer money.
But perhaps the greatest concession McCarthy offered up, after the marathon series of votes that threatened to stymie his ambitions altogether, is his ability to be a strong speaker.
Even with the win, McCarthy’s speakership will likely be marred by mistrust from a portion of his conference, while he will remain at the mercy of the detractors who opposed him this week – and likely others in his conference.
Beyond McCarthy’s role as speaker, the showdown this week also foreshadowed what will likely be a common occurrence in the next two years, with a prominent division within the Republican Party that holds only a narrow majority and few votes to spare.
“These four days have tested House Republicans’ ability to govern – and they have failed,” Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas said on the House floor on Friday. “What we’ve seen unfold before our very eyes is exactly what’s in store for the country for the next two years under Republican control. And this should be deeply concerning to the American people who expect us to do our jobs and fulfill even the most fundamental functions of this institution.”
But McCarthy told reporters on Friday that the lengthy battle for the speakership has done the opposite – strengthening his conference by making it “more effective,” “more efficient” and “more accountable.”
“Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern,” McCarthy said. “So now we’ll be able to get the job done.”