Kevin McCarthy was finally elected as the next speaker of the US House of Representatives early on Saturday morning. After the 15th round of votes, the Republican leader was able to secure the support of 216 members, including a vast majority of those who opposed him in previous rounds.
It was the longest vote process for the position since 1859, just prior to the Civil War. McCarthy secured the vote after making extensive concessions to a group of right-wing hardliners that raised questions about the party’s ability to govern.
The House about to adjourn
The vote took place late into the fourth day of the process, after dramatic moments on the House floor. In the 14th round, McCarthy came up one vote short, as he received 216 votes out of 432 who participated.
The one vote short occurred when Representative Matt Gaetz withheld his vote on the 14th ballot as midnight approached, prompting a scuffle in which fellow Republican Mike Rogers had to be physically pulled away.
At the beginning of Friday evening, McCarthy’s team voiced confidence in his election on the 14th round, but although he was able to convince most of those who opposed his nomination, there were still four GOP members who voted for other candidates and two who voted “present.”
McCarthy secured the required votes while a vote to adjourn the House until Monday was underway, but GOP members quickly changed their vote not to keep the House open and to move to the 15th round, in which the Republican leader was able to cross the 50% threshold required to hold the gavel.
The House was adjourned for much of the day Friday as McCarthy and his allies held conversations with the 20 GOP members who opposed his nomination, and many of them signaled they would be open to change their vote after several concessions that reportedly included spending cuts and allowing a single member to call a vote to oust the Speaker – which would complicate McCarthy’s ability of effectively govern.
Hardliners said McCarthy’s offer would make it easier to extract the steep spending cuts they seek.
“We got the things that I think are transformational,” said Representative Ralph Norman, one of those who had opposed McCarthy for much of the week.
As he took the gavel for the first time, McCarthy represented the end of President Joe Biden’s Democrats’ hold on both chambers of Congress.
“Our system is built on checks and balances. It’s time for us to be a check and provide some balance to the president’s policies,” McCarthy said in his inaugural speech, which laid out a wide range of priorities from cutting spending to immigration, to fighting culture war battles.
McCarthy secured the gavel only after agreeing to a demand by hardliners that any lawmaker be able to call for his removal at any time. That will sharply cut the power he will hold when trying to pass legislation on critical issues including funding the government, addressing the nation’s looming debt ceiling and other crises that may arise.
Republicans’ weaker-than-expected performance in November’s midterm elections left them with a narrow 222-212 majority, which has given outsized power to the right-wing hardliners who have opposed McCarthy’s leadership.
Those concessions, including sharp spending cuts and other curbs on McCarthy’s leadership, could point to further turbulence in the months ahead, especially when Congress will need to sign off on a further increase of the United States’ $31.4 trillion borrowing authority.
Over the past decade, Republicans have repeatedly shut down much of the government and pushed the world’s largest borrower to the brink of default in efforts to extract steep spending cuts, usually without success.
Several of the hardliners have questioned McCarthy’s willingness to engage in such brinksmanship when negotiating with President Joe Biden, whose Democrats control the Senate. They have raged in the past when Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell agreed to compromise deals.
The hardliners, also including Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry and Chip Roy of Texas, said concessions they extracted from McCarthy will make it easier to pursue such tactics this year – or force another vote on McCarthy’s leadership if he does not live up to their expectations.
“You have changes in how we’re going to spend and allocate money that are going to be historic,” said Representative Scott Perry, the chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.
“We don’t want clean debt ceilings to just go through and just keep paying the bill without some counteracting effort to control spending when the Democrats control the White House and control the Senate.”
One of those Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, warned that the concessions McCarthy made to win the job may come back to haunt him.
“Kevin McCarthy’s concessions to the extremists in his party make it far more likely that the MAGA Republican controlled House will cause a government shutdown or a default with devastating consequences to our country,” Schumer said in a statement.
In a sharp contrast to this week’s battles among House Republicans, Biden and McConnell appeared together in Kentucky on Wednesday to highlight investments in infrastructure.
McCarthy’s belated victory came the day after the two-year anniversary of the attack on the US Capitol, when a violent mob stormed Congress in an attempt to overturn then-president Donald Trump’s election loss.
McCarthy’s last bid for speaker, in 2015, crumbled in the face of right-wing opposition. The two previous Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, left the job after conflict with right-wing colleagues.
McCarthy now holds the authority to block Biden’s legislative agenda, force votes for Republican priorities on the economy, energy and immigration and move forward with investigations of Biden, his administration and his family.
But McCarthy has agreed to concessions that mean he will hold considerably less power than his predecessor, Democrat Nancy Pelosi. That will make it hard for him to agree to deals with Democrats in a divided Washington.
Allowing a single member to call for a vote to remove the speaker will give hardliners extraordinary leverage.
The agreement would cap spending for the next fiscal year at last year’s levels – amounting to a significant cut when inflation and population growth are taken into account.
That could meet resistance from more centrist Republicans or those who have pushed for greater military funding, particularly as the United States is spending money to help Ukraine fend off a Russian assault.
Moderate Republican Brian Fitzpatrick said he was not worried that the House would effectively be run by hardliners.
“It’s aspirational,” he told reporters. “We still have our voting cards.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition released a statement congratulating McCarthy. “The RJC is proud to congratulate our friend Kevin McCarthy on his election as Speaker of the US House of Representatives, the group said in a statement. “It’s official: Republicans have fired Nancy Pelosi once and for all.”
The RJC statement continued that, “with Speaker McCarthy’s leadership, we know this new Republican majority will deliver on its Commitment to America: an economy that’s strong, a nation that’s safe, a future that’s built on freedom, and a government that’s accountable. We look forward to continuing our close work with Speaker McCarthy and the new Republican majority in the 118th Congress as it gets to work on behalf of the American people.”