How Kevin McCarthy (finally) became speaker of the House

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

McCarthy was able to sway several far-right members of his party by agreeing to extraordinary concessions that will rewrite the politics of the House.

Charlie Brown never kicked the football, Ralph Bellamy never got the girl, but early Saturday morning, Kevin McCarthy finally became speaker.

On the 15th ballot, a total not reached since before the Civil War, McCarthy finally got the absolute majority of votes necessary to be elected speaker of the House. By a vote of 216 to 212 for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) with six voting present, he finally won the longest speaker’s election since Rep. William Pennington (R-NJ) won after 44 ballots on the eve of the Civil War.

Since Tuesday, the California Republican had faced an ongoing rebellion from hard-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 finally achieved his long-desired goal of wielding the speaker’s gavel.

After McCarthy failed again during a 14th vote late Friday night — falling short by just one vote — members of the leadership team surrounded Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) to get him to change his mind after he voted present, effectively abstaining. It got so heated that Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), an ardent McCarthy ally, even lunged at Gaetz before being restrained by Reps. Richard Hudson (R-NC) and Garret Graves (R-LA).

In the 15th ballot which started in the waning minutes of January 6 and finished well after midnight, all of the remaining anti-McCarthy voters switched their choice to a “present” vote. That was enough to finally make McCarthy speaker.

The price he paid, though, was steep. McCarthy made a series of concessions to his critics in order to sufficiently mollify them and avoid a political deadlock. The result leaves him as a badly weakened speaker even before his first day in office. Gaetz, perhaps McCarthy’s most virulent critic in the House GOP, said in a floor speech earlier Friday that even if the California Republican won, his powers would be more similar to the speaker in the British House of Commons than the American House of Representatives. In other words, McCarthy would be more of a constitutional figurehead than a powerful party leader.

The concessions may not quite go that far, and it’s unlikely that McCarthy will wear a black silk gown like his counterpart in Parliament. However, he’s not going to wield the same power as Nancy Pelosi did, or even Paul Ryan and John Boehner. After decades where the position of speaker has grown increasingly powerful, the deal reached Friday reduces the role of the office.

What got him over the top?

McCarthy made 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. Most importantly, they will get three members on the powerful House Rules Committee. The Rules Committee is not concerned with policy substance. As its chair, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), described it to Vox, “it is a process committee.” It sets the terms of debate and decides whether bills are subject to amendments on the floor. It has long been the redoubt of House leadership in both parties and exists, in Cole’s words, to “make sure [legislation] gets to the floor in the form that the speaker thinks is most likely to pass.”

In recent years, that has meant legislation has gone through the committee precooked, with few amendments accepted inside the room and no ability to alter bills by rank-and-file members once they hit the floor. In theory, under the concessions McCarthy agreed to, the new members will now allow for more debate on bills and make it more difficult for comprehensive legislative leviathans like the recent omnibus bill or the Democratic social spending bill dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act to be forced through the chamber.

The rebels also won concessions on limiting spending as well as a commitment by an outside super PAC affiliated with McCarthy, the Congressional Leadership Fund, not to spend in open Republican primaries in safe seats.

Perhaps the most symbolic concession, though, is the motion to vacate. This is a provision long in the House rules that allowed any individual member to offer a motion to “vacate the chair,” which would initiate a new election for speaker at any time. This tool carried great symbolism in the negotiations with McCarthy’s detractors; it was the threat used by the right in 2015 to eventually force Boehner out of the speaker’s office. Upon taking power in 2018, Pelosi changed the rules to limit its use. House Republicans pushed for it to be restored, even though McCarthy had once described it as a red line. While the California Republican had earlier conceded that the motion could be introduced with the support of five members, the threshold is now back down to one.

What happens next?

After McCarthy finally won election in the wee hours, the House moved on to passing its rules and letting everyone finally go home. In the short term, House Republicans will be able to pass through some of the agenda that they campaigned on in the days and weeks to come, including legislation to reverse the funding increase for the IRS contained in the Inflation Reduction Act as well as legislation to address the southern border and illegal immigration. These will be nonstarters in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

In the long term, McCarthy’s concessions set the table for another major showdown over the debt ceiling in the months to come. The federal government will soon run up against the limit of $31.4 trillion, and conservatives will demand that the Biden White House make concessions in order to approve raising the limit. This means a high-stakes showdown that would put the good faith and credit of the United States at risk. A similar showdown in 2011 under Boehner led to the United States’ credit rating being reduced for the first time in history. But unlike then, far-right conservatives in the House will have a lot more power, and the Republican speaker will be in a much weaker political position.

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