Just past Friday midnight, the Bakersfield, California, congressman at last secured the votes necessary to take hold of the gavel, following a grueling series of failed ballots that saw a gang of nearly 20 Republicans repeatedly lock arms against the longtime House GOP leader.
The impasse began to break on Friday morning. McCarthy held a call with Republicans, proclaiming he and the party were in a “good position.” The subsequent 12th ballot saw 14 members who had previously opposed him cast roll call votes for McCarthy. Yet another, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), joined during the 13th ballot, after which the House adjourned. “I’ll have the votes,” McCarthy predicted to CNN about the vote Friday night.
McCarthy was still off by one. Despite “Never Kevin” leaders Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boehbert voting “present,” instead of in opposition, McCarthy still could not muster more than half of the votes on the 14th roll call. A tumultuous face-to-face confrontation between Gaetz and McCarthy on the House floor failed to change the tally, and McCarthy instead headed to a 15th round of voting.
Then, on the 15th try, the anti-McCarthy bloc yielded together, with six members voting “present” instead of in opposition, lowering the win threshold, and allowing McCarthy to squeak through with bare majority of 216 votes.
The opposition to McCarthy’s speakership was centered in the far-right Freedom Caucus, with members bashing McCarthy as a lobbyist-beholden, bad-faith negotiator who would never accede to its populist ultra-MAGA demands. Some of the opposition was ideological; at least rhetorically, the Freedom Caucus advocates financial austerity and members see McCarthy as too free-spending. For others the conflict seemed far more personal, as with the case of Never-Kevin ringleader Matt Gaetz.
The hard-line Freedom Caucus has long wielded political power beyond its modest numbers by withholding backing on party-line votes essential to conducting business in the House, and grinding business to a halt. The vote for speaker is normally a routine display of party unity. McCarthy was nominated as speaker-designate by his party at the end of 2022 by an overwhelming margin within the House GOP conference. But to secure the gavel, McCarthy needed an absolute majority of House members to vote for him. With 214 Democrats all voting in unison for their new leader, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, McCarthy could suffer no more than four GOP defections, given the slim margin voters afforded the Republicans during the 2022 “red ripple” midterm elections.
Using the Freedom Caucus’ favorite obstructionist tactic, 19 GOP members withheld party-line support from McCarthy on the first ballot on Tuesday. It was the first time in 100 years that a speaker had not been elected on the first ballot. The second ballot also failed, and by the third the number of anti-McCarthy Republicans had climbed to 20. Former President Donald Trump tried to publicly rally support for McCarthy on Wednesday, but it had no effect. The number of Republicans who declined to vote for him rose to 21 on the three votes held later that day.
Attempting to shore up support, McCarthy agreed to a series of major concessions Wednesday night, but that didn’t make any difference, either. He lost all four votes held Thursday, gaining no ground. Each loss made McCarthy’s embarrassment more historic, with the congressman ultimately losing more speaker votes than in any contest since before the Civil War.
Negotiations intensified, with the GOP leader ceding even more authority to the hostage takers in his caucus. McCarthy reportedly conceded to demands that would allow any single GOP House member to trigger a new vote for McCarthy to be stripped of his gavel. McCarthy also promised floor votes on key issues, including term limits for House members. The new speaker is also said to have committed that there will be no “clean” vote to raise the federal debt ceiling later this year.
For McCarthy, 57, winning Friday night’s vote marks the end of a near decade-long quest to become speaker. The Californian was next-in line to assume the post in 2015 when the Freedom Caucus successfully ousted then-speaker John Boehner. But McCarthy withdrew his candidacy at the last moment in the wake of a gaffe, in which he admitted the true purpose of the Benghazi investigation was to bring down Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers, and amid rumors of a personal indiscretion. After playing second fiddle to eventual speaker Paul Ryan, and riding out the tumult of the Trump era, McCarthy again put himself in position to secure the gavel to start the 118th Congress.
In the runup to the 2022 elections, McCarthy hardly cloaked his ambition, infamously “joking” about an imagined transfer of power: “I want you to watch Nancy Pelosi hand me that gavel,” he told a GOP audience in Tennessee in 2021. “It’ll be hard not to hit her with it.” And even before this week’s protracted election drama, McCarthy took the presumptive step of moving into the speaker’s House chambers.
McCarthy may finally be Speaker but the chaos that preceded his election is a danger sign for the nation moving forward, shutting down the business of the House for days, in a prelude to what’s almost certain to become a full-fledged government shutdown during this congress.
McCarthy at last has his gavel, but the Freedom Caucus has McCarthy by the short hairs. This far right faction are now in position to demand that the Speaker join them in their hostage taking. Votes over funding the federal government or raising the debt ceiling are likely to degenerate into high-stakes games of chicken, with the GOP demanding that extremist priorities be met — or the full-faith-and-credit of the United States government suffers the consequences.
The speakership election may have been a clown show, but it could pale in comparison to the coming two years of tension as the GOP casts aside any concern for the welfare of the American people to embark on a series of standoffs with the Biden administration, and bogus, Benghazi-style investigations of their political enemies. And even after giving up the farm to his Freedom Caucus frenemies, McCarthy’s tenure as speaker could be nasty, brutish and short. As a Freedom Caucus founder, retired Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, put it to Rolling Stone: “They can totally undo him.”