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McCarthy wins speaker election, finally

Prolonged election made history, exposed cracks in majority party

Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gives a thumbs up after colleagues who had opposed him for speaker switched their votes to support him on Friday afternoon, the start of a shift that led to his election as speaker.
Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gives a thumbs up after colleagues who had opposed him for speaker switched their votes to support him on Friday afternoon, the start of a shift that led to his election as speaker. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Kevin McCarthy officially secured the speaker’s gavel early Saturday, elected on the 15th ballot with 216 votes, after four days of unsuccessful House votes and some last-minute drama.

The House reconvened at 10 p.m. Friday to hold the 14th and what McCarthy had thought would be the final ballot in the drawn out process to elect him as the 55th speaker. 

But instead of winning on that vote, McCarthy fell one vote short as efforts from his allies to sway Florida Republican Matt Gaetz failed. Gaetz voted “present” on the 14th ballot, disappointing McCarthy and leading Republicans to move to adjourn the House until Monday. 

But during the roll call on the adjournment vote, the tide quickly turned. McCarthy’s allies rushed to the well to switch their votes on adjourning from “yea” to “nay.” Gaetz also held up a red card indicating he wanted to switch to “no,” and the the House voted not to adjourn. 

“One more time,” a grinning McCarthy shouted, calling his troops together for what he could finally say for sure would be the last ballot. Republicans chanted it back in unison: “One more time. One more time.” 

Gaetz voted “present” again on that 15th and final ballot. But  this time the other four Republicans who voted against McCarthy on the 14th ballot — Arizona’s Andy Biggs and Eli Crane, Virginia’s Bob Good and Montana’s Matt Rosendale — also voted “present.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., gestures to Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as members try to convince Gaetz to change his vote at the end of the failed 14th vote to elect a speaker late Friday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert, who had said she would never support McCarthy, voted “present” on both the 14th and 15th ballots.

The other 14 other Republicans who had voted against McCarthy on earlier ballots until flipping his way Friday afternoon voted for him again in the final two ballots.

The six “present” votes lowered the threshold McCarthy needed to win to 215. He pulled it out with one extra. All 212 Democrats voted for their leader, Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

“That was easy, huh?” McCarthy joked as he finally took the podium shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday to deliver his victory speech.

After days of negotiations with his party, McCarthy had to wait roughly 15 more minutes as Jeffries gave a longer than usual introductory speech — which was more about Democrats’ victories and priorities than the typical olive branch of vowing to work across the aisle that he tucked in — before handing McCarthy the speaker’s gavel.

McCarthy continued his self deprecating humor with a message for Jeffries, who has eyes on becoming speaker one day: “Hakeem, I got to warn you. Two years ago I got 100 percent of the vote from my conference.”

McCarthy won over most of his House Republican critics with a series of commitments to rein in spending — opening up the appropriations process in the House and using the debt ceiling as leverage — and to hold votes on conservative priorities, like a balanced budget, congressional term limits and a border security plan Texas Republicans crafted.

But with a slim 222-seat majority, McCarthy may have just as much trouble finding the votes for all the things he committed to do as he did in trying to be elected speaker. His critics and allies both acknowledge that no individual priority is guaranteed to pass, but they feel they put the tools in place to make sure all members, not leadership, will get to make those decisions.

McCarthy also agreed to ensure the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which most of his flipped opponents are members of, has proportional representation on committees compared to other ideological groups in the Republican Conference.

And perhaps most importantly, the California Republican agreed to restore a longstanding rule on the procedure for ousting a sitting speaker to allow one member to force a recall vote at any time. His detractors said this concession was needed to ensure accountability, as they didn’t inherently trust McCarthy to make the changes he promised without a backstop.

That change was incorporated into a resolution establishing the rules for the 118th Congress, which the House was set to vote on Monday.

Earlier concessions McCarthy made to conservatives to limit bills to a single subject and make it harder to waive the germaneness rule for amendments are included in the rules package, as well as language setting up a separate vote to create a Judiciary subcommittee they wanted to centralize investigations into the executive branch.

McCarthy also agreed to appoint “three solid conservatives” to the Rules Committee, Texas Republican Chip Roy, who helped craft the deal, said on The Mark Levin Show. That will help conservatives ensure leadership doesn’t send legislation to the floor that doesn’t have significant Republican backing.

“If we’d anointed Kevin on Dec. 1, we never would have gotten these substantive changes,” he said.

Separately Roy told reporters that most of the negotiations he had were with McCarthy allies, like Republicans PatrickT. McHenry of North Carolina and Garret Graves of Louisiana. Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., hosted most of those negotiating sessions.

“Most of the conversations I’ve had have not been directly with Kevin. That’s not a criticism. We’ve all been working together kind of across the ideological spectrum,” Roy said. “We all want to be on one page. We all want to be united.”

Vote switchers

In the end McCarthy’s commitments flipped 14 of the 20 Republicans who voted against him on earlier rounds of balloting. And some last-minute floor negotiations led the rest of his detractors to vote “present” and lower the threshold needed for him to squeeze out the win.

Gaetz, who had said repeatedly he would never vote for McCarthy over personal gripes and his view that the Californian is beholden to special interests, had told reporters hours before the vote that he liked a lot of the deal his fellow holdouts helped put together.

“We’re running out of things to ask for. The leader has been very thorough in some of his responses,” he said.

Biggs and Good had been much more critical ahead of the vote.

McCarthy sits surrounded by his supporters at the end of the failed 14th vote to elect a speaker late Friday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“I’m not going to participate in the continuation of the Uniparty,” Biggs tweeted.

And Good released a New York Times op-ed reiterating his view that “Kevin McCarthy has failed to secure the trust of the entire Republican conference to be the leader who will fight to change the status quo in Washington.”

‘A brave new world’

Although the commitments McCarthy made were designed to win over his critics, his allies also found things to like.

“It’s sort of a brave new world, but it’s an effort to turn back the clock a little bit, to empower members,” incoming Rules Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said. “We want the process to open up more and there’s always risks associated with that, but I think the place is not nearly as much fun for legislators as when I arrived here in 2003.”

Cole said he was fine having more conservatives on the Rules Committee if that’s what McCarthy wants.

“He knows what it takes here, and we’ve certainly had some great Freedom Caucus members,” Cole said. “Your job is to facilitate the movement to the floor of the Republican agenda. So we’re not going to change a lot of things.”

While some of the changes Freedom Caucus members wanted — like limiting bills to a single subject and being more strict about keeping amendments germane — are part of the House rules package, others can’t be enforced through procedure.

That was part of the reason the McCarthy critics held out for so long, they wanted to ensure the commitments the leader was making would be realized. For weeks they said they didn’t trust McCarthy, but in the end they were willing to put that aside.

“It’s a trust not only of the individuals but of the things that we’ve agreed on together, together,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., said. “So as long as everybody is true to their word, and sincere, which I’ve been in good faith, and I think everybody else has, then we’re good.”

North Carolina Republican Dan Bishop, one of the detractors who supported McCarthy in the end, said the changes McCarthy agreed to were “significant.”

In particular he cited commitments that Republicans will put up fights on government funding and the debt limit to ensure their goal to cut spending is realized.

“I think the benefit of an agreement like this is it brings discipline and vigor to the Republican conference so we are ready to go to the mat and prevail,” he said. “This is the kind of fighting the American people’s representatives should do in Washington.”

McCarthy putting his commitments in writing gave former opponents some security, South Carolina Republican Ralph Norman said. But he pointed to the one-member threshold for the motion to vacate as additional insurance for the group to hold McCarthy accountable.

Dream job

McCarthy, who will turn 58 on Jan. 26, has long broadcast his ambitions to be speaker. He went for the job once before in 2015, only to be thwarted by the Freedom Caucus, albeit a largely different contingent.

Still, his rise from a sandwich store owner in Bakersfield, Calif., to a House member sitting in the speaker’s chair in his ninth term is the culmination of political career McCarthy built around relationships.

Known for his friendly demeanor, McCarthy has been involved in leadership since his early days in Congress.

He was appointed chief deputy whip in his sophomore term, charged with helping former Virginia Republican Eric Cantor, who was then minority whip, to count votes. Since then, McCarthy steadily climbed the leadership ranks with a combination of impressive fundraising and savvy political skills. He has been the House GOP leader since 2014.

McCarthy’s first attempt at gaining the speakership came after John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, stepped down as speaker in October 2015 — a decision also influenced by Freedom Caucus opposition, in which they threatened to force a vote on a motion to vacate him from the office. McCarthy abruptly dropped out of the race to succeed Boehner just hours before Republicans were set to nominate him for the role.

After McCarthy acknowledged he wasn’t the candidate the conference would unify around, Wisconsin Republican Paul D. Ryan, then the Ways and Means Committee chairman who was the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, was later elected to speaker and McCarthy remained in his position as the majority leader.

McCarthy spent the next seven-plus years trying to win over his critics, but it wasn’t until the last seven days that he made the final headway needed to land him his dream job.

“I hope one thing is clear after this week: I never give up,” McCarthy said in his victory speech.

Avery Roe, Ellyn Ferguson, John T. Bennett, Herb Jackson, David Jordan, David Lerman and Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.

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