Kevin McCarthy is elected House speaker after four days of Republican infighting

Republican Kevin McCarthy achieved his long-held ambition of becoming House speaker early Saturday after quelling a rebellion by GOP conservative hardliners, but at the cost of further weakening his precarious position within a sharply divided party. 

After the longest series of speaker ballots since 1859, McCarthy had 216 votes in the final tally, enough to be elected to the post that is second in line for the presidency, with six voting “present.” Democrats unanimously cast votes for their leader, New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries.

The protracted deadlock between establishment Republicans and hard-line conservatives took 15 votes over more than four days to resolve. And it previews more chaos ahead on the political challenges that will come up this year, including raising the US debt ceiling and funding the government.

The final vote was preceded by dramatic moments on the House floor as the Republican fight escalated to shouting and physical confrontations. After McCarthy was blocked on the 14th ballot, a stunning and humiliating defeat, he walked quickly to the back of the House chamber and confronted Florida’s Matt Gaetz, one of his most strident critics.

Gaetz had held out casting his vote until the very last moment, when it would be decisive. He then voted “present” which has left McCarthy just short of victory. McCarthy ally Mike Rogers stormed over to Gaetz and started to say something but was restrained by Representative Richard Hudson.

Gaetz appearing to accuse McCarthy of something and pointing his finger at him. McCarthy eventually left, flustered, without the vote he needed, as a stunned House watched it unfold. 

Donald Trump, whose earlier endorsement of McCarthy failed to sway his opponents, made a last-minute pitch. Colorado Republican Ken Buck said the former president was making calls to members on the floor.

Until the speaker was elected, the House could conduct no other business and there are no rules governing the day-to-day operations of the 434 House lawmakers and their staffs. After Saturday morning’s vote, returning and newly elected lawmakers were finally sworn in and prepared to vote for a package of rules outlining how the House will function. 

McCarthy, a California Republican, prevailed after days of intense negotiations and a series of humiliating defeats. He had to surrender considerable authority, promising to back procedural changes empowering dissidents, including the ability to let a single Republican force a House vote on ousting him as speaker. 

He also gave in to demands from fiscal conservatives to use the federal debt ceiling as a bargaining chip to force spending cuts and to cap fiscal year 2024 spending across the government at 2022 levels, which would mean significant cuts for many programs. Both heighten the risk of a market—rattling showdown with the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Joe Biden.

McCarthy’s bid for the speaker’s gavel had been in trouble since the election, in which the GOP fell well short of expectations of a so-called red wave that would give them solid majorities in both the House and Senate. 

They won the House, but it’s there that the struggle over the direction of a party is playing out most vividly. Republicans are divided between members from swing districts who have to court independent voters and hard-line conservatives with safe seats who’ve adopted Trump’s populist agenda.

Perhaps the most consequential concession McCarthy made was a rules change allowing a single dissatisfied Republican to initiate a vote to remove him at any time.

The tide started to turn in favor of McCarthy once he and dissidents hammered out the contours of the deal, with 15 of the holdouts switching their votes to support him during the 12th voting round earlier Friday.

McCarthy had said he anticipated the speaker vote going to multiple rounds as a faction of ultra-conservatives pressed their demands for more power. He vowed he wouldn’t back down. 

“I don’t have a problem getting a record for the most votes for speaker,” he said before balloting began.

McCarthy had to wait for two of his supporters to return to the Capitol to vote on Friday. Incoming Representative Wesley Hunt of Texas was away to meet his newborn child and Representative Ken Buck of Colorado left Thursday because of a medical matter.

This is the second time McCarthy has hit roadblocks in a bid for speaker. When Ohio Republican John Boehner quit as speaker and resigned from the House in 2015 after dealing with rebellions by conservative Republicans, McCarthy, who was first elected to the House in 2012, was widely seen as a favorite to replace him. But he backed down in the face of opposition from that conservative faction.

McCarthy, 57, spent much of last year trying to win over a faction of conservatives who had a list of grievances about House rules, ire over compromises with Democrats and a lack of trust in the Californian’s claim to conservative credentials.

Arizona Representative Andy Biggs, one of the leaders of the revolt, said earlier in the week that McCarthy “has a history that is off-putting to some people.” He voted against McCarthy in the 14th round of votes but switched to “present” in the 15th and final one.

Like most House speakers, McCarthy comes into the job with a vast fundraising network. He raised nearly $26.5 million last cycle, more than any other member of the House. And the McCarthy-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund Super PAC raised nearly $260 million. Of the 20 hardliners that opposed McCarthy in the first 11 ballots for the speakership, 14 of the holdouts received some of the largess from McCarthy’s fund. 

But notably, some of McCarthy’s most fervent detractors — including Representatives Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida — didn’t receive any funds from McCarthy’s PAC.

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