After four days of deliberations and 15 votes, Republican Kevin McCarthy has won the speakership of the House of Representatives following a dramatic back-and-forth with far-right members of his party that ended early Saturday morning.
The speakership came down to the wire, as Freedom Caucus members Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., held out as “present” votes, rather than votes for McCarthy, in the 14th total round of voting late Friday. After initially moving to adjourn until Monday, Republicans appeared to strike a deal with far-right members, setting the stage for the final round and giving McCarthy the momentum he needed to win the chamber’s highest seat.
By the final count, McCarthy, R-Calif., held 216 votes to 212 votes for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., with six members, all Republicans, voting present.
“My father always told me, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” McCarthy told cheering fellow Republicans.
Eager to confront President Joe Biden and the Democrats, he promised subpoenas and investigations. “Now the hard work begins,” the California Republican declared. He credited former President Donald Trump for standing with him and for making late calls “helping get those final votes.”
Republicans roared in celebration when his victory was announced, chanting “USA! USA!”
Finally elected, McCarthy took the oath of office, and the House was finally able to swear in newly elected lawmakers who had been waiting all week for the chamber to formally open and the 2023-24 session to begin.
McCarthy fell one vote short on the 14th ballot, and the chamber became raucous, unruly.
He strode to the back of the chamber to confront Gaetz, sitting with Boebert and other holdouts. Fingers were pointed, words exchanged and violence apparently just averted.
At one point, Republican Mike Rogers of Alabama, shouting, approached Gaetz before another Republican, Richard Hudson, physically pulled him back.
“Stay civil!” someone shouted.
Order restored, the Republicans fell in line to give McCarthy the post he had fought so hard to gain, House speaker, second in the line of succession to the presidency.
The few remaining Republican holdouts began voting present, dropping the tally he needed. It was the end of a bitter standoff that had shown the strengths and fragility of American democracy.
The day’s stunning turn of events came after McCarthy agreed to many of the detractors’ demands.
In the Capitol rotunda, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, told reporters framework of a deal for holdouts to support McCarthy “serves as the template by which we’re going to be holding him accountable.” However, neither he nor his fellow members of Congress speaking with reporters would go into detail as to just what that framework entailed.
FreedomWorks, a GOP-aligned advocacy group, said in a press release that McCarthy made “key concessions” to members of the far-right Freedom Caucus, including promises to allow motions to vacate the speakership by only one member of the House of Representatives, open rules on appropriations bills and offer “non-establishment representation” on key committees. McCarthy had declared to reporters earlier in the day that he believed “we’ll have the votes to finish this once and for all.”
Other wins for the holdouts are more obscure and include provisions in the proposed deal to expand the number of seats available on the House Rules Committee, to mandate 72 hours for bills to be posted before votes and to promise to try for a constitutional amendment that would impose federal limits on the number of terms a person could serve in the House and Senate, The Associated Press reported.
Even with McCarthy able to secure the votes he needed, he will emerge as a weakened speaker, having given away some powers and constantly under the threat of being booted by his detractors.
But he could also be emboldened as a survivor of one of the more brutal fights for the gavel in U.S. history. Not since the Civil War era has a speaker’s vote dragged through so many rounds of voting.
The showdown that has stymied the new Congress came against the backdrop of the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which shook the country when a mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters tried to stop Congress from certifying the Republican’s 2020 election defeat to Democrat Joe Biden.
At a Capitol event Friday, some lawmakers, mostly Democrats, observed a moment of silence and praised officers who helped protect Congress on that day. And at the White House, Biden handed out medals to officers and others who fought the attackers. And at the White House, Biden handed out medals to officers and others who fought the attackers.
“America is a land of laws, not chaos,” he said.
At the afternoon speaker’s vote, a number of Republicans tiring of the spectacle temporarily walked out when one of McCarthy’s most ardent challengers railed against the GOP leader.
Contours of a deal with conservative holdouts who had been blocking McCarthy’s rise emerged after three dismal days and 11 failed votes in an intraparty standoff unseen in modern times.
And an upbeat McCarthy told reporters as he arrived at the Capitol, “We’re going to make progress. We’re going to shock you.”
Friday’s first vote saw 13 Republicans who had previously voted against McCarthy support him, as well as another GOP member who had voted present Wednesday and Thursday. McCarthy picked up an additional vote in the following round before Republicans moved to adjourn until night.
Among the members who flipped were Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Dan Bishop of North Carolina, Byron Donalds of Florida, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Chip Roy of Texas. Biggs and Norman had previously considered themselves to be “hard nos” on McCarthy. Perry is the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and was highly critical of McCarthy on Thursday following negotiations. And Donalds’ name was put forward by Republicans several times Wednesday and Thursday as an alternative to McCarthy.
“We’re at a turning point,” Perry tweeted Friday. “I’ve negotiated in good faith, with one purpose: to restore the People’s House back to its rightful owners. The framework for an agreement is in place, so in a good-faith effort, I voted to restore the People’s House by voting for @gopleader McCarthy.
Trump may have played a role in swaying the holdouts. Donalds said he had spoken to the former president who had been urging Republicans to wrap up their public dispute the day before.
As Rep. Mike Garcia nominated McCarthy for Friday, he also thanked the U.S. Capitol Police who were given a standing ovation for protecting lawmakers and the legislative seat of democracy on Jan. 6.
But in nominating the Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat Jim Clyburn recalled the horror of that day and told his colleagues: “The eyes of the country are on us today,” he said.
Without a speaker, the chamber was unable swear in members and begin its 2023-24 session, a sign of the difficulty ahead for the new Republican majority as it tries to govern.
Electing a speaker is normally an easy, joyous task for a party that has just won majority control. But not this time: About 200 Republicans have been stymied by 20 far-right colleagues who said he’s not conservative enough.
The disorganized start to the new Congress pointed to difficulties ahead with Republicans now in control of the House, much the way that some past Republican speakers, including John Boehner, had trouble leading a rebellious right flank. The result: government shutdowns, standoffs and Boehner’s early retirement when conservatives threatened to oust him..
What started as a political novelty, the first time since 1923 a nominee had not won the gavel on the first vote, has devolved into a bitter Republican Party feud and deepening potential crisis.
The longest fight for the gavel started in late 1855 and dragged on for two months, with 133 ballots, during debates over slavery in the run-up to the Civil War.