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The last-minute drama that momentarily derailed McCarthy — again

Before McCarthy finally clinched the speakership, there was a near-brawl late Friday as Matt Gaetz delivered a blow denying him on the 14th vote

Mike Rogers of Alabama is restrained after getting into an argument with fellow Republican Matt Gaetz of Florida in the 14th round of voting for speaker Friday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The House turned into a near-brawl late Friday after another failed vote to elect a speaker as Republicans held back one of their most senior members from a potential clash with Matt Gaetz of Florida.

Gaetz had just delivered the fatal last vote that left California’s Kevin McCarthy one vote shy of the bare majority he needed to win the gavel, after the flamboyant Republican had spent the long roll call maneuvering to make himself the last vote that mattered.

Instead of the anticipated victory, on the painstakingly long trek through 14 ballots, Gaetz voted “present.” Some Republicans thought that was enough to deliver a victory, since Gaetz had previously been voting for other conservative alternatives, but McCarthy knew right away that something was wrong.

He had 216 votes out of 432 cast, as Gaetz and Lauren Boebert’s “present” votes essentially did not count in the overall tally. That was not enough for a majority, so McCarthy darted up the center aisle toward Gaetz and Colorado’s Boebert.

But the GOP leader and his closest allies, including Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, quickly homed in on Gaetz. Other Republicans came around as well, clearly trying to persuade Gaetz to switch his vote before the clerk and vote counters officially counted up the ballots and gaveled the vote shut.

Then Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, who expects to become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on which Gaetz serves, stormed toward the huddle, enraged. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), a member of the leadership, walked with Rogers, aware of how angry he was.

Video and photographs show Rogers beginning to yell at Gaetz, when Hudson grabbed Rogers, including across his mouth, and physically yanked him back, sending him away from the group.

A gasp went up across the entire House chamber, as lawmakers realized how close they were to something that could have turned into a physical altercation.

Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) initially helped deny the House speakership to Rep.-elect Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Jan. 6, until he changed his mind. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Rogers’s outburst stemmed from an offer floated by GOP leadership that would give Gaetz the gavel of one of his subcommittees, according to two people familiar with the dynamics. According to a fellow lawmaker, Rogers believed there are more qualified members for the role.

“Might give you some perspective on why Mike Rogers blew up on the floor,” they said.

When the drama ended, McCarthy denied any such offers. “I mean, we ended up with a tie and he was able to get the others there to go ‘present,’” he said. As for whether Gaetz would get a subcommittee chairmanship for his vote, McCarthy said: “No one gets promised anything.”

At one point photographers had shots of Majorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — a staunch ally of former president Donald Trump — waving a phone with the letters “DT” clearly visible and trying to hand it to one of the anti-McCarthy holdouts, who instead waved his hand at her, not interested in talking to someone who might have been the 45th president.

The tensions had come to a boil because McCarthy and his leadership team had said that he had secured the votes to finally win on that particular ballot.

McCarthy’s wife, Judy, and other members of his family, close friends and staff had occupied VIP suites in the gallery above. Friends and family of other members, who had been waiting to see the swearing-in of new members-elect, had gathered in the other public gallery suites. McCarthy had guaranteed victory to reporters all afternoon and evening.

McHenry, a longtime ally, had delivered a nominating speech that fell flat except to one person, McCarthy, who got all the odd inside jokes. It was set up to be a victory party — until the GOP’s math, again, fell short.

McCarthy entered the ballot expecting to have 216 votes in his pocket out of 434 members voting. He need to either flip two of the six Republican holdouts, including Boebert and Gaetz, to vote for him, or to get three of the six to vote “present” — which would lower the overall vote tally to 431 members, giving McCarthy a win at 216.

The session started at 10 p.m., in part because two of McCarthy’s supporters needed to fly back Friday afternoon for personal business in Colorado and Texas. But Gaetz acted strangely from the very beginning.

Early on, Gaetz took a seat that McCarthy had sat in all week during these long alphabetical roll call votes, next to John Leganski, a top aide to McCarthy. After the opening prayer finished, Leganski put his right hand on Gaetz’s left shoulder and delivered a stern message to him.

Gaetz then retreated to the back of the chamber, where he chatted for several minutes with Jim Jordan of Ohio, a close McCarthy ally. When it was his turn to vote, Gaetz walked away and did not answer the call of the clerk, instead going to a huddle with McHenry.

When Gaetz finally took a seat, next to Boebert, McHenry settled in next to him, because at that point of the roll call only Boebert had switched her vote to “present.”

Gaetz had maneuvered the situation so that his vote would decide McCarthy’s fate — but he had to affirmatively vote for McCarthy, or else the ballot would fail, just like the previous 13 had.

After voting “present,” Gaetz endured a long entreaty from McCarthy, McHenry and many others, none nearly as angry as Rogers.

Finally, McHenry thought there was no hope, so he offered a motion to adjourn the entire chamber until Monday in a bid to buy time to negotiate with Gaetz and the five other holdouts.

But as that vote unfolded, some Republicans were opposed to it and it looked for a moment like yet another embarrassment for McCarthy’s leadership team — a failed vote on a procedural motion.

Then, from their perch on the back center aisle, Gaetz and Boebert marched forward to the well of the chamber asking for red cards — signaling they wanted to vote against adjourning.

According to a handful of Republicans familiar with the discussions, they had finally decided to change their minds.

Leaders killed the motion to adjourn, and then decided to do a 15th and final roll call for the speaker.

“One more time, one more time,” Republicans chanted.

Republicans pause infighting to pick Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as House speaker in historic 15th round of voting (Video: The Washington Post)

All six holdouts, including Gaetz, voted either “present” or simply did not vote. Dozens of newly elected lawmakers would finally get to be sworn in, about 3 1/2 days after the original timeline.

“I’m going to get sworn in 1 a.m. on Saturday after two members almost got into a physical altercation on the House floor after my 15th vote for speaker on my fourth day here,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), who at age 25 is the youngest new member.

The last votes were cast around 12:30 a.m. McCarthy finally had the votes to win.

In the back of the chamber, Gaetz stood along with other Republicans. He did not clap for the new speaker.

Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker of the House

The vote: The House elected Kevin McCarthy after days of defeats and concessions to win over hard-line Republicans. See how each of the House members voted in all 15 ballots.

A dramatic finish: After multiple ballots over four days (the longest House speaker vote in history took two months and 133 votes), the House turned into a near-brawl late Friday after a 14th round of voting failed. See the remarkable near-confrontation on the House floor.

Kevin McCarthy’s concessions: McCarthy made several concessions in an attempt to win over 20 Republicans who voted against his candidacy. In the end, these were the remaining six holdouts McCarthy needed to persuade. Here are the concessions that could become flash points.