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‘Can I be speaker?’ Kevin McCarthy asks — for eight hours straight

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) delivered the longest House speech in modern history on Nov. 18 in opposition to the Build Back Better Act. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“I spend a lot of time thinking about the next Congress,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said at one point in his marathon speech against Democrats’ spending bill, which stretched from Thursday night into the wee hours of Friday morning.

“I just have to get to a certain time,” he added between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. The reference was to the record for the longest House speech in the modern era, which McCarthy broke minutes later.

Can I be speaker?” he asked shortly after 1 a.m.

Indeed, that was the subtext of virtually the entirety of McCarthy’s filibuster-esque speech on the House floor. The majority Democrats were going to pass the bill Friday morning, which they have now done, but McCarthy could use the so-called magic minute allotted to a leader like him to speak for as long as he wanted. And he decided to use that time to take a stand rather transparently aimed at appealing to an unwieldy conference and conservative movement, hoping they would remember it if and when the time comes that Republicans elect the next speaker — a decision they appear likely to have to make in less than 14 months.

Isolating some of these quotes in this context is a little unfair. When McCarthy spoke about the next Congress, he said it was about, “How do we heal this place?” When he asked “Can I be speaker?,” it was intended as a joke; Democrats were in the middle of changing the presiding member.

But he also served notice exactly what was on his mind — repeatedly. Around the same time as his “Can I be speaker?” quip, McCarthy indicated it wasn’t strictly a joke. “I want her to hand that gavel to me,” he said. “I want her to be here.”

The comment about setting the record for longest speech was also weird in that it betrayed the nature of the political ploy. It wasn’t that McCarthy was just that passionate about halting the bill — while perhaps he is — it was about getting to the finish line and creating a footnote in history.

One of the most under-discussed questions in Washington right now is what Republicans will do if and when they regain the majority, which both the 2021 elections and new polling indicate is quite likely. They need to gain just five seats, and history and recent evidence suggest that should happen. McCarthy already knows what it’s like to be passed over in such a scenario; it happened to him in 2015, when he dropped out as it was clear he did not have enough support.

The reasons for that were complicated, and they weren’t solely McCarthy-specific. The GOP was struggling mightily to find someone who could be acceptable both to establishment-oriented Republicans and the tea partyers who had crashed their party a few years earlier. They ultimately had to recruit perhaps the one guy who could fit the bill: then-Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Today, McCarthy is again walking a tightrope between some of his party’s baser instincts and his more natural mode as a pragmatic California Republican. And there’s plenty of reason to believe his impending speakership is in doubt.

McCarthy’s leadership in the minority has been uneven ever since Democrats retook Congress in the 2018 election, but the last 12 months have been particularly trying.

After the election, he reportedly told an elections analyst that Donald Trump had clearly lost. And when House members moved to try to overturn the results in the Supreme Court, McCarthy’s name wasn’t initially among them. He also punted twice when asked whether he supported the effort. Quickly, though, he was added to the list, with the explanation being that his name was inadvertently left off it. Somehow, they left off the No. 1 Republican in the House!

After the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection that followed, McCarthy was initially among Trump’s strongest critics. While he opposed impeachment, he floated an unprecedented censure of Trump for his failure to act more quickly to rein in his supporters. Except later, McCarthy began talking as if Trump had acted quickly enough. And he fought efforts to investigate the thing for which he said it was perhaps worthy of censuring Trump.

The two episodes drove home the same message that can’t possibly be lost on the conservative House Freedom Caucus that opposed his first bid for speaker: that maybe McCarthy isn’t the conservative warrior the movement calls for at this time. McCarthy eventually came around, more or less, to the far-right base’s line, but not before he apparently said what he really thought. Perhaps farther-right Republicans will reason they could keep him in line when he is speaker, too, but their long-standing suspicions of McCarthy aren’t likely to have gone anywhere.

Arguably more severely hampering McCarthy’s impending bid was what happened two weeks ago. On the heels of big GOP gains in the 2021 election, House Democrats finally passed their infrastructure bill — and did so, as it just so happened, with Republicans providing the decisive votes. McCarthy had approached the package somewhat uncertainly, given that 19 Republican senators had voted for it in that chamber. Moreover, even Trump as president had played up the importance of investing in infrastructure, although he ultimately came out against it and tried to prevent the bill’s passage in the House to deny Democrats a win.

Much of the venom from Trump and his allies has been directed toward the 13 House Republicans who wound up voting for the bill, rather than McCarthy. And it’s unlikely McCarthy could have prevented every Republican from voting for it (which is what would have been required). But the base isn’t often interested in such nuance and excuses. This has been pitched as greasing the skids on the slippery slope to socialism, and McCarthy presided over it.

And indeed, shortly before the events of Thursday night and Friday morning, one key figure began connecting those dots and questioning McCarthy’s status as the logical speaker-in-waiting. Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows appeared on a pair of podcasts to deliver the message, and even floated — more earnestly than we’ve seen previously — the idea that, if they win the House next year, Republicans could name Trump as speaker (which they can technically do, given that the speaker need not be a House member).

“I would give them a grade of a ‘D,’” Meadows, a former member of the House Freedom Caucus, said of House GOP leaders. “I believe that on this tactic and strategy — listen, you need to make Democrats take tough votes. You need to make sure that when you’ve got them on the ropes that you don’t throw in the white towel.”

Meadows added on another podcast that he “would love to see the gavel go from Nancy Pelosi to Donald Trump” because it would make Democrats apoplectic.

Meadows’s comments drive home what this is really about, at least for some crucial members. It’s not about naming the most effective legislator; it’s about owning the libs. That is decidedly not McCarthy’s strength, though he tried to rectify that last night.

Trump’s political operation has said previously that Trump isn’t interested in the post, and it’s worth skepticism that this is anything other than a political ploy. But the fact that such a threat would be wielded drives home the precariousness of McCarthy’s status as the No. 1 House Republican, particularly when that Republican might have more actual control.

In his speech spanning midnight Thursday to Friday, McCarthy served notice with his own political ploy that he has received that message and is at least going to try to say the right things. Whether the right people will actually trust him to do what they view as the right things — and believe he’s capable of doing them — is another matter entirely.