Kevin McCarthy Is Finally House Speaker. But at What Cost?

January 7, 2023 Off By Paul Blest

California Republican Kevin McCarthy finally fulfilled his dream of becoming Speaker of the House—three days, more than a dozen ballots, and one national humiliation later than he expected it to happen.

Worst of all for McCarthy: he owes his entire speakership to Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and five other far-right Republicans who effectively handed him the gavel on a technicality. And the cost of winning that seat could be much of the power that previously gave the Speaker’s role its outsized influence on Congress. 

Earlier on Friday, the House Republican leader had cut a deal with more than a dozen House rebels, one which would entrench the power of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. McCarthy announced that he had reached a deal with Rep.-elect Chip Roy of Texas, a leader of the Republicans who’d withheld support, on a call with Republican caucus members on Friday morning.

After winning the support of 214 Republicans in the first round of voting Friday and 12th overall, Rep.-elect Andy Harris of Maryland flipped to McCarthy in the 13th round—still leaving McCarthy four votes short of a majority. Two pro-McCarthy Republicans, Wesley Hunt of Texas and Ken Buck of Colorado, missed votes due to family and medical issues, but returned to D.C. Friday night to help elect McCarthy.

But even after the House gaveled back in late Friday night, McCarthy’s path to the speakership was punctuated by one of the wildest scenes on the House floor in American history.

On the 14th ballot, four anti-McCarthy votes stuck together while Gaetz and Boebert voted present, continuing to deny an exasperated McCarthy the speakership. Gaetz engaged in heated conversation with McCarthy and his allies; after McCarthy walked away Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama lunged at Gaetz.

Republicans then moved to adjourn until Monday, but amid the chaos, Gaetz and McCarthy struck a deal. And on the 15th and final ballot, all six of the remaining holdouts voted present, giving McCarthy 216 votes and a slim majority of the 428 ballots counting toward the total.  

As House Clerk Cheryl Johnson read McCarthy’s name in the tally following the 15th ballot, the new Speaker yelled: “Finally!”

McCarthy had said after the House adjourned Friday afternoon that he was confident he’d finally win the election. 

“We'll come back tonight and I believe at that time, we'll have the votes to finish this once and for all,” McCarthy told reporters. “This is the great part: because it took this long, now we learned how to govern.”

The original deal McCarthy struck with the holdouts reportedly lowers the threshold to force a vote on “vacating the chair” — effectively a no-confidence vote in the Speaker of the House — to just one member, according to NBC News. This means it will be much easier to kick McCarthy out of the job he just won. 

The deal also reportedly gives House Freedom Caucus members key slots on the House Rules Committee as well as other committees, according to NBC News, and caps discretionary spending for 2024 at 2022 levels, putting programs such as Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block. It also means a possible government shutdown over the summer, when the U.S. hits the debt ceiling. 

Previously reported details of negotiations include that the political action committees tied to McCarthy will stay out of open House primaries in safe Republican districts—which could clear the way for even more right-wing members to be elected to the House.

McCarthy denied Friday that all of the concessions that he has made so far will weaken his position as speaker. “Has it undercut the power of all of the other Speakers?” McCarthy told reporters. “I would only be a weaker speaker if I was afraid of [losing].”

It is so far unclear what Gaetz and the final holdouts secured in exchange for the present votes. 

McCarthy is the first incoming Speaker in a hundred years to win the position on multiple ballots, and there were more rounds of voting this time around than at any point since before the Civil War. And the maneuver to “vacate the chair” has already claimed the job of one recent Republican Speaker: John Boehner, under whom McCarthy served under as House Majority Leader at the time. (Boehner resigned in 2015, after future White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows filed the motion against him.)

The inability of Republicans to elect a Speaker of the House also hamstrung the work of the House of Representatives for several days. Effectively, there was no House of Representatives—though members were supposed to be sworn-in on Tuesday, that process happens after a Speaker has been elected.

Rep.-elect Greg Casar, a Texas progressive who’s entering his first term in Congress, told VICE News Friday that his office had already begun handling constituent phone calls even though he hasn’t yet been sworn in. But the lack of a Speaker, a rules package, or any actual member of the House has complicated things for would-be House members and their staff. 

“Some people have had trouble with email access or getting different parts of the federal government to be responsive. Folks are worried about whether they have to make purchases to set up their offices,” Rep.-elect Greg Casar, a Texas progressive who’s entering his first term in Congress, told VICE News. “I’m worried there might be federal employees who might not get paid, if this drags on.” 

Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican and McCarthy supporter, said a federal agency told his staff the same thing, and that he and another House Republican were barred from a classified intelligence briefing for the same reason.

“A handful of Members are holding us hostage from doing our jobs and are putting our national security at risk!” Bacon tweeted.

Sarah Selip, the communications director for incoming GOP Rep-elect. Brandon Williams of New York told VICE News that she was unable to even unlock her computer. 

Williams’ office drafted a letter this week through the House’s electronic “Dear Colleague” system, which is web-based rather than email. The letter asked other offices to sign onto a plea to House clerk Cheryl Johnson for access to “email and other technology,” saying the lack thereof was “preventing our staff members from carrying out the important work we were elected to do on behalf of our constituents.”

“Our caseworkers are unable to assist our constituents with pressing issues before government agencies, and our legislative staffers are unable to communicate with the many stakeholders we were elected to represent,” the letter said. “It is important our staff are able to begin working so that we are ready to carry out the people’s business once a Speaker is elected.”

The letter was never officially sent or gathered signatures. But Selip said that House technology staff caught wind of it and gave access to Williams’ staffers Thursday, though some emails haven’t been transferred. “There is still so much progress to be made, but we’re in a much better place than if we did not circulate that letter,” Selip said in a text message Friday.

For Casar, the problems McCarthy had to win his first vote shows who actually stands to hold the power in the House for the next two years, and what they’ll attempt to do with it. 

“It's troubling not just because we can't do the people's business and pass laws in response to crises,” Casar told VICE News. “It's troubling because it foretells that the extreme right-wing of Congress is willing to break the institution to gret what it wants, and will do anything it takes to cut Social Security and cut Medicare and take apart basic components in the federal government that we've worked for so many generations to build.”