How Kevin McCarthy (Finally) Became Speaker of the House

Charlie Brown never kicked the ball, Ralph Bellamy never had a girlfriend, but early Saturday morning, Kevin McCarthy finally became speaker.

On the 15th ballot, a total not reached since before the Civil War, McCarthy finally obtained the absolute majority of the necessary votes be elected Speaker of the House. With a vote of 216 to 212 for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) with six voters in attendance, he ultimately won the election of longest speaker since Representative William Pennington (R-NJ) he won after 44 ballots on the eve of the civil war.

As of Tuesday, the California Republican had faced a constant rebellion by far-right members of his party who did not trust him to sufficiently adhere to conservative doctrine if given power. After three days of vote after vote and late-night negotiations inside the Capitol, McCarthy has finally achieved his long-desired goal of wielding the speaker’s gavel.

After McCarthy failed again on the 14th ballot late Friday night – missing by a single vote – members of the leadership team were surrounded Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) to change his mind after voting present, effectively abstaining. He got so hot that Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), an ardent McCarthy ally, even lunged at Gaetz before be detained by Representatives Richard Hudson (R-NC) and Garret Graves (R-LA).

In the fifteenth poll, which began in the last minutes of January 6 and ended well after midnight, all remaining anti-McCarthy voters changed their pick to a “present” vote. This was enough to finally get McCarthy talking.

The price he paid, however, was high. McCarthy had a batting average of series of concessions to his critics to soften them sufficiently and avoid a political stalemate. The result leaves him as a severely weakened speaker even before his first day in office. Gaetz, perhaps McCarthy’s most virulent critic in the GOP House, said in a speech on the floor Friday that even if the California Republican won, his powers would be more like the speaker of the British House of Commons than the House. of American representatives. In other words, McCarthy would be more of a constitutional figure than a powerful party leader. The concessions may not go as far and McCarthy is unlikely to wear a black silk suit like his counterpart in Parliament. However, he won’t wield the same power as Nancy Pelosi, or even Paul Ryan and John Boehner. After decades in which the rapporteur’s position has grown increasingly powerful, the deal reached on Friday reduces the office’s role.

What took him over the top?

McCarthy has done it with a series of concessions to the right that will give members affiliated with the House Freedom Caucus significant influence in the legislative process. More importantly, they’ll get three members on the powerful House Rules Committee. The Rules Committee does not deal with political substance. As its chairman, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), described to Vox, “it’s a process committee.” It sets the terms of the debate and decides whether or not bills are subject to change in the floor. It has long been the focal point of House leadership in both parties and exists, in Cole’s words, to “make sure [legislation] arrives at the word in the form that the speaker thinks is most likely to pass.

In recent years, this has meant that legislation has gone through pre-cooked committee with few amendments accepted inside the room and no ability for grassroots members to amend bills once they hit the floor. In theory, under concessions McCarthy agreed to, new members will now allow for more debate on bills and make it more difficult for global legislative leviathans like the recent one bus bill or the Democratic welfare spending bill dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) be forced through the chamber.

The rebels also won concessions on spending caps and a pledge from a McCarthy-affiliated external super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, not to spend in open Republican primaries in safe places.

Perhaps the most symbolic concession, however, is the motion to evict. This is a lengthy provision in the House Rules that allowed any single member to table a motion to “leave the presidency,” which would start a new election for the speaker at any time. This tool carried great symbolism in negotiations with McCarthy’s detractors; was the threat used by the right in 2015 to finally force Boehner out of the speaker’s office. After taking power in 2018, Pelosi changed the rules to limit its use. House Republicans pushed for his reinstatement, even though McCarthy had once described him as a redline. While the California Republican had previously admitted the motion could be tabled with the support of five members, now the threshold has dropped back to one.

What happens next?

After McCarthy finally won the election in the wee hours of the morning, the House moved on to pass his rules and finally let everyone go home. In the near term, House Republicans will be able to go through some of the agendas they’ve been campaigning on in the days and weeks ahead, including legislation to roll back funding increases for the Internal Revenue Service. in the IRA, as well as legislation to address the southern border and illegal immigration. These will not start in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

In the long run, McCarthy’s concessions set the stage for another big debt ceiling showdown in the months ahead. The federal government will soon run into the $31.4 trillion limit and conservatives will be asking the Biden White House to make concessions to approve raising the limit. This means a high-risk showdown that would put US good faith and credit at risk. A similar showdown in 2011 under John Boehner led to the downgrade of the US credit rating for the first time in history. But unlike then, far-right conservatives the House will have much more power and the Republican speaker will be in a much weaker political position.


Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) in the House after the vote on Friday, January 6, 2023. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images