By the time House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) yielded the floor at 5:11 a.m. Friday, completing a speech that began some 8 ½ hours earlier, he had repeatedly taken aim at House Democrats and their $2.1 trillion social spending and climate change agenda.
But the speech — the longest in the House in modern history — only delayed the inevitable. At 9:46 a.m., the Democratic-led House passed President Biden’s signature initiative on a 220-213 vote in a major win for the administration, a moment marked by cheers and chants of “Build Back Better.” The legislation now heads to the Senate where the odds are tougher, but not impossible, in the 50-50 chamber.
During his speech, even McCarthy acknowledged the outcome.
“I don’t know that this speech is going to make a difference,” McCarthy said just after 3 a.m.
McCarthy’s House-style filibuster, which broke a record previously held by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), punctuated another brutal week of partisan insults and nearly all-party-line votes in a legislative chamber that has never recovered from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters.
On Wednesday, the Democratic-led House censured Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) for posting a violent video depicting the murder of one lawmaker and an attack on Biden, a short, heated debate that brought back many recollections of that fateful attack on the Capitol.
On Thursday, a long policy debate on legislation aimed at reshaping programs ranging from child care to vision benefits for the elderly devolved into a mutual show of utter disdain.
Just a few years ago, when he was a lieutenant in GOP leadership circles, McCarthy was the jovial one who built friendships with many Democrats in the House gym and on bike rides across the capital region.
After 10 months of watching McCarthy contort himself to remain in good standing with Trump — bragging at his Thursday morning news conference that the former president had just called him from the golf course — Democrats simply no longer wanted anything to do with their onetime friend.
That was evident on Twitter and elsewhere.
“It is a feat of epic proportions to speak for four hours straight and not produce a single memorable phrase, original insight or even a joke,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) tweeted. “McCarthy thinks he is a wit but so far he has proved he is only half right.”
Pelosi’s office blasted an email to reporters with the subject header “Is Kevin McCarthy OK?” that compiled other biting tweets about the Republican leader’s “meandering rant.”
Speaking Friday morning, Pelosi touted the bill, but her most appreciated words seemed to be, “As a courtesy to my colleagues, I will be brief.”
Later, at a Capitol news conference after the bill’s passage, she told reporters she had not listened to McCarthy’s remarks.
“I didn’t even pay attention to that speech,” Pelosi said. “I don’t even listen to most of the speeches on the other side, because they’re not fraught with meaning or fact. So, I don’t have my computer get bothered with that.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not hesitate to offer her take on McCarthy’s speech when asked about it during her daily briefing.
“Kevin McCarthy said a lot of words, a lot of words, I just want to emphasize that, over the course of eight and a half hours,” Psaki said. “In eight and a half hours, what he did not talk about was cutting the cost of child care, cutting the cost of elder care, what we were going to do around the country to bring more women into the workforce, to protect our climate and that for generations to come. That, in our view, tells you all you need to know about Kevin McCarthy’s agenda and what he supports.”
Trump, meanwhile, offered praise for McCarthy in a statement Friday, saying he had done a “great job” in speaking “to properly oppose Communism.”
Shortly after 8:30 p.m., as McCarthy began a speech that had been signaled as a filibuster, roughly a dozen Democrats stood up from their seats on the House floor and began heading toward the exits. Some snickered as they looked toward the Republican side of the aisle with disdain.
An hour later, Democrats kept walking out.
“We’re leaving you, Kevin,” one Democrat yelled as a handful, from a boisterous Democratic corner of the chamber, departed, having grown tired of his speechifying.
“I’m okay. I’ll be here,” McCarthy shot back at Democrats for the dozenth time that evening.
“For how long?” one Democrat shouted across the aisle, exasperated.
McCarthy is one of three House leaders — Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) are the others — who are granted the power of a “magic minute,” allowing them to speak during debate for as long as they want and the time is only counted for one minute of the allotted debate time.
It usually allows for a big speech to last about 15 minutes or so, without cutting into other lawmakers’ time, but every few years the minority leader tries to make a marathon speech as a rallying cry to his or her caucus. In 2009, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) spoke for about 90 minutes to delay Pelosi’s bid to pass an energy tax bill. In 2018, in the minority, Pelosi went for just over eight hours — assumed to be the longest House speech ever until McCarthy broke the record — in support of legislation to give citizenship to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as young children.
McCarthy, never known for seasoned oratory, used the marathon speech to air countless grievances against Pelosi, Democrats, Biden and many others. Topics ranged from inflation to the administration’s handling of China policy, to the 13 U.S. troops lost in the terrorist attack at the Kabul airport in August during a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Some of his claims wildly defied the facts, but they all dripped with disdain for Democrats and their agenda.
Republicans sitting behind McCarthy broke into applause as he railed against “one-party rule for one year” and claimed that Thanksgiving next week would cost “more than it ever has.”
Often folding his hands into his khaki pants, pacing about at his lectern, he frequently demanded silence as he spoke, irking Democrats who at times were outraged by his speech and at other junctures just ignored it. They murmured and, whenever he complained, they yelled at him to finish up.
“That’s all right. I got all night,” McCarthy said before announcing he was planning to dissect the 2,000-page bill section by section.
Several Democrats shouted back, “So do we!” One Democratic woman said, “We’ve been waiting for this a long time.”
The sneers continued. When the snickering and whispers grew too loud, McCarthy would often look at the presiding speaker, Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), and inform him that “the House is not in order.”
The more McCarthy requested he slam down the gavel to corral Democrats’ attention, the less quickly Aguilar would indulge him.
McCarthy then brought up how Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) noted in a recent interview that voters did not elect Biden to be as aspiring a president as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who oversaw job growth spearheaded by his New Deal agenda. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) yelled, “I did.” Her exclamation was backed up by another Democrat who yelled, “Me too!”
As Democrats began to laugh and chat among themselves, an irritated McCarthy, having talked already for roughly 45 minutes, taunted Democrats by reminding them that Pelosi may soon kick them off their committees, given that she values decorum.
Exasperated, Ocasio-Cortez yelled, “It’s because they incited violence,” before hastily storming off the floor. McCarthy has spent the week defending Gosar after he posted a violent anime video depicting himself killing Ocasio-Cortez and fighting Biden. His delay in removing the video and unwillingness to apologize led Democrats to strip him of his committee assignments and earned him a censure by the full House.
At one point, Rep. Betty Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) muttered something under her breath while she looked at her phone. It was loud enough to prompt laughs by Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) and Val Demings (D-Fla.), who nudged her shoulder playfully. But the Black women immediately grew serious as McCarthy carefully set the stage to attack Vice President Harris. One of them warned, “Careful, careful.”
McCarthy also used his time to speculate when Pelosi would step down as the top Democrat, musing that she probably would not stick around too much longer.
“Yeah she will,” Beatty shot back.
“I want her to hand that gavel to me,” said McCarthy, who hopes to be speaker if Republicans take back control of the House in the next Congress.
Just past midnight, as McCarthy’s speech approached the 3 ½-hour mark, Pelosi returned to the floor and began whispering to the dozen or so Democrats who were still in the chamber hoping to vote. Tapping them on the shoulder, Pelosi sent them out the doors.
No vote, she told them, would be held at that late — or early — an hour.
“He wants to do it in the dead of night,” Hoyer told reporters a few minutes later regarding the timing of the vote. “We are going to do it in the day.”
Hoyer slated the House to return to session Friday at 8 a.m., at which point Democrats hope to finish the final minutes of debate and hold a vote to pass the ambitious legislation.
But nothing could be done to stop McCarthy, who looked at the near-empty Democratic side of the aisle, and a quickly thinning crowd of Republicans behind him.
“I don’t know if they think because they left I’m going to stop,” McCarthy said. “I’m not.”
McCarthy continued to speak for roughly five more hours as dozens of his Republican colleagues sat behind him to offer support. At 4:01 a.m., McCarthy stopped himself from reading the final pages of his speech he dubbed “the closer” to instead open a new three-inch binder that listed all the amendments offered by the GOP while Democrats put together their social spending plan.
He ticked through several amendments, breezing past Pelosi’s 8 hour, 7 minute record for the longest speech, before finally looking around to ask if he had secured his spot in House history.
“You broke the record,” Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) exclaimed as the Republican side of the chamber erupted in cheers.
In reflection, McCarthy noted how his 8 hour, 32 minute-speech garnered good reactions and bad, but said he never expected a Democrat telling him how to act on the House floor.
“They booed. They yelled. They heckled. Quite honestly it was shameful behavior. I’m not sure, but if it was on the other side, they probably would’ve lost their committees,” McCarthy said. “With that Madame Speaker, I yield back.”
Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner contributed to this report.