Republican leader Kevin McCarthy became the 55th speaker of the House early Saturday morning, overcoming a fierce challenge to his leadership by a group of far-right members that led him to make steep concessions and suggests a contentious two years ahead.
“As Speaker of the House my ultimate responsibility is not to my party,” he said in a speech after 1 a.m. in the chamber. “Our responsibility is to our country.”
His election capped four days of bitter infighting among Republicans over their future that finally appeared to be headed to a resolution Friday night, with McCarthy and his allies projecting confidence as they headed into a 14th vote around 10 p.m.
But that vote failed as well, in a stunning turn of events that blindsided McCarthy. Lacking just one vote to elect a speaker after days of negotiations and roll-call votes, at least one lawmaker was seen wiping tears away and a McCarthy ally charged angrily at one of the holdouts, his frustration boiling over.
Republicans’ infighting over the speakership caused a logjam unprecedented in modern history. With 14 failed rounds of voting, the House surpassed the number of votes it endured — nine — the last time such a stalemate occurred, in 1923.
President Biden released a statement congratulating McCarthy on the victory. “This is a time to govern responsibly and to ensure that we’re putting the interests of American families first,” Biden said.
On Friday, McCarthy finally was able to make progress after his allies worked to hammer out a framework that resulted in 14 of the 20 holdouts voting for him on Friday afternoon on the 12th ballot, prompting cheers from the Republican side of the aisle.
“The potential of what’s been described to us, pending approval, is transformative to empower the rank and file,” Josh Brecheen (R-Okla.), who flipped for McCarthy, said after the 12th ballot.
On the 13th ballot, McCarthy gained support from one more holdout, Andy Harris (R-Md.), capping the most momentum he had seen all week. Still, those 214 votes were not enough.
The House agreed to reconvene hours later to allow Wesley Hunt (R-Tex.) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.) time to return to vote. Hunt had flown back to Texas to be with his wife, who just days before had delivered a baby several weeks premature and had since returned to the hospital with complications. Buck had traveled to Colorado for a medical procedure.
“We’ll come back tonight … and finish this once and for all. It just reminds me of what my father always told me: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” McCarthy said. “I think at the end of the day, we’re going to be more effective, more efficient.”
But when the House reconvened late Friday night, four of the original 20 holdouts continued to vote against McCarthy, while two of them — Lauren Boebert (Colo.) and Matt Gaetz (Fla.) — voted “present,” effectively excluding themselves from the vote.
That left McCarthy short just one vote of the speakership — the closest he has been all week.
McCarthy allies swarmed Gaetz — who cast his vote last — on the floor and tried to persuade the Florida Republican to change his vote, with party-mate Mike Rogers of Alabama storming into the huddle and seeming on the brink of violence. Rogers then retreated to a cloakroom off the floor.
Democrats and Republicans alike appeared stunned by the turn of events, and the chamber was nearly silent as people processed what was going on.
McCarthy’s speaker bid appeared to be stymied once again, as lawmakers began voting to adjourn until Monday. But just moments before that vote was ending, McCarthy signaled he had a deal, quickly changing his own vote not to adjourn.
Former president Donald Trump, whom McCarthy once privately disavowed in the wake of the Capitol attack but has since embraced, talked to at least one of the holdouts via phone while they were still on the floor, whipping their votes. He pushed Gaetz to find a resolution, according to a source familiar with the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail a private discussion. “I do want to especially thank President Trump,” McCarthy said after the vote.
As the 15th ballot began, heads were spinning. “Madam clerk, I rise to say: Wow,” said Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), as he nominated Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) for speaker.
On the 15th ballot, Republicans Eli Crane (Ariz.), Bob Good (Va.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Matthew M. Rosendale (Mont.) switched their votes from opposing McCarthy to “present,” joining Gaetz and Boebert, and allowing McCarthy to win with just 216 votes. Jeffries received 212 votes.
The days-long struggle to choose a speaker has raised fears across the Capitol that McCarthy may not be able to manage his narrow majority or effectively govern.
That could lead to trouble when Democrats and Republicans must act later this year to raise the country’s debt ceiling — which allows the United States to borrow to pay its bills — or else risk the fiscal calamity of a default. Many of the holdouts said they extracted promises from McCarthy to tie a debt ceiling increase to spending cuts that would raise the chances of a standoff — although McCarthy’s allies have downplayed those cuts as “aspirational.” And proposed new House rules remove a key legislative tool that leaders might have used to address the debt ceiling in the event of a political standoff.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer warned in a statement that McCarthy “surrendered to demands of a fringe element of the Republican party” to get the job, making it “far more likely that the MAGA Republican controlled House will cause a government shutdown or a default with devastating consequences to our country.”
The speaker’s battle showed how intertwined McCarthy is with the far right of his caucus. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who had been kicked off her committees for endorsing unsubstantiated conspiracy theories including ones casting doubt about school shootings, served as a key ally this week, and embraced McCarthy after he clinched the votes.
But McCarthy dismissed concerns his majority would be unable to function effectively, and said the days-long process of the election — during which no member could be sworn in — was “great.”
“Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern,” he said Friday afternoon. “So now we’ll be able to get the job done.”
Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), in nominating McCarthy for the 14th ballot, pushed back on the notion that the history-making standoff was “embarrassing,” as President Biden called it earlier this week. “We know it’s messy, but open and transparent debate is what sets us apart from authoritarian regimes,” he said.
The concessions McCarthy has made to hard-right Republicans include lowering, from five to one, the number of members required to force a vote on ousting the speaker — a change that the California Republican had previously said he would not accept.
The rule change represents a stunning reversal that, if adopted, would weaken the position of speaker and make his hold on the job highly tenuous. When asked how confident he was that he would be speaker for the full two years given the proposed change, McCarthy said: “1,000 percent.”
He also expressed willingness to place more members of the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus on the Rules Committee, which debates legislation before it moves to the floor. And he relented on allowing floor votes to institute term limits on members and to enact specific border policy legislation. He’s also agreed to launch a committee that will look into what Republicans call the “weaponization” of the FBI.
“I think the House is in a lot better place with some of the work that’s been done to democratize power out of the speakership and into the membership,” Gaetz told reporters Friday afternoon after lawmakers voted to adjourn. “That’s been our goal.”
He reiterated that he wanted either to see McCarthy defeated or to change House rules so that McCarthy was imprisoned in “a functional straitjacket.”
It was clear Friday that impatience and frustration within the GOP had boiled over into open animosity between its pro- and anti-McCarthy factions. As Gaetz nominated Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) for speaker on the 12th ballot, he accused McCarthy of dragging out an impossible campaign as “an exercise in vanity.”
“You only earn the position of speaker of the House if you can get the votes,” Gaetz said. “Mr. McCarthy doesn’t have the votes today. He will not have the votes tomorrow and he will not have the votes next week, next month, next year.”
Gaetz’s speech prompted Michael Bost (R-Ill.), a McCarthy supporter, to interrupt him with angry shouting, something that had not happened during the first three days of balloting. Other GOP lawmakers walked off the House floor in silent protest.
“It’s just personal attacks,” Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) told reporters after storming out.
It was periodically acknowledged Friday that it was the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, when a pro-Trump mob overran the U.S. Capitol seeking to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral win.
In his nomination speech for Jeffries, Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said the vote will set the country on “the path to division.”
“The same individuals who fanned the flames of January 6th, who told their followers … that they needed to fight back and who challenged the swearing in of members based on a bogus claim of fake electors may well be in charge of the people’s House,” Aguilar said. “If they can ever agree on who can lead them.”
Theodoric Meyer, Jacqueline Alemany, Paul Kane, Camila DeChalus, Tony Romm and Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.