Speaker in Name Only

Kevin McCarthy finally has the job he always wanted. What did he sacrifice to get it?

A photo of Kevin McCarthy
Andrew Harnik / AP

Having at long last put down a rebellion from within his party, Kevin McCarthy is now House speaker. He finally has the gavel he’s long coveted, but the job he secured after 14 consecutive drubbings is not the one he envisioned.

Last night, he suffered one more indignity to get it, perhaps the most stunning in a week’s worth of humiliations. McCarthy had to literally beg his most hated Republican foe, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, for the deciding vote, and a fight nearly broke out on the House floor. But after 14 failed votes, it was finally over.

McCarthy’s victory on the 15th ballot concluded an extraordinary week of defeats that froze half of Congress and turned the California Republican into a national laughingstock. The denouement was the most dramatic scene yet, as the House reconvened for what McCarthy assured reporters would be the final victorious vote. Earlier yesterday, McCarthy had convinced all but six of his GOP opponents to support him, and he needed only to turn two more. But Gaetz, who had repeatedly vowed never to support him, waited until the very end and withheld his vote one more time. In full view of C-SPAN’s cameras, Gaetz refused animated appeals from McCarthy’s closest allies and even from the would-be speaker himself. McCarthy walked over to Gaetz, spoke with him for a few minutes, and then, head down, slumped back to his chair. A furious Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama had to be physically restrained from lunging at Gaetz.

Dejected and confused, McCarthy’s allies moved to adjourn the House until Monday. But while that vote was going on, McCarthy secured the acquiescence of Gaetz and the remaining holdouts. The House stayed in session and voted again. “Madam Clerk, I rise to say, ‘Wow,’” Democratic Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota said to laughter from a stunned chamber. On the 15th and last ballot, McCarthy’s remaining GOP opponents all voted “present” and allowed McCarthy to clear the majority threshold without their explicit support.

With the speaker’s gavel in hand, McCarthy will soon find out whether it was all worth it. To end the crisis, he cut a deal that essentially traded away a sizable chunk of power from the position, placing the new speaker at the mercy of the very hard-liners who had thwarted him.

Under the agreement McCarthy struck, any Republican will be able to demand a vote on his ouster. McCarthy is reportedly guaranteeing the far-right House Freedom Caucus enough seats on the Rules Committee to give the group an effective veto over most legislation that comes up for a vote. He’s committing the party to pursue steep—and, in all likelihood, politically unpopular—budget cuts while ensuring a partisan brawl over the debt ceiling that could damage the nation’s economy.

What transpired this week was the most prolonged stalemate to begin a new session of Congress since before the Civil War. McCarthy’s struggle to lock down the speakership illuminated just how much of a challenge any Republican would have in leading a narrow, deeply divided majority. But his capitulation to the far-right holdouts could make the House all but ungovernable.

For many, if not most, of the renegades, that was precisely the point. They saw the modern speakership, whether in Republican or Democratic hands, as a vessel for corrupt deals that resulted in too much spending and a bloated federal government. If a by-product of decentralizing power in the House is dysfunction, they reasoned, so be it.

McCarthy’s concessions have frustrated and angered some of his fellow Republicans. At least one McCarthy supporter, Representative Tony Gonzales of Texas, vowed to oppose a package of House rules formalizing much of the agreement between the new speaker and the holdouts. But for the most part, more moderate House Republicans have given McCarthy wide latitude to negotiate.

Earlier this week, it looked as if McCarthy’s bid for speaker had stalled and that, for the second time in eight years, he might be forced to withdraw his nomination in the face of conservative opposition. But having evidently determined that a weakened speakership was better than no speakership, McCarthy persisted, dispatching emissaries to a flurry of meetings between failed floor votes. Progress came slowly, and then nearly all at once. McCarthy suffered 21 GOP defections on eight straight votes on Wednesday and Thursday. “Mr. McCarthy does not 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 said on the floor before the 12th failed vote yesterday afternoon. A group of McCarthy’s allies walked out of the chamber in disgust, and it was on that ballot that McCarthy turned his faltering candidacy around. He flipped 14 of the 21 defectors, who voted without enthusiasm for the GOP leader while citing the emerging agreement. After one more vote, Republicans successfully adjourned the House to buy time for absent members to come back last night.

McCarthy will likely receive some credit for sticking it out. He can also take some solace in the fact that expectations for what House Republicans can accomplish with a narrow majority are already quite low. The mere fact of a Republican majority in the House alongside a Democratic-controlled Senate guarantees that neither party’s legislative wish list will make it to President Joe Biden’s desk.

Ask most House Republicans what they realistically hope to do over the next two years, and the answer is some variation of the phrase “Hold Joe Biden accountable.” In the near term, that means issuing subpoenas and holding hearings focused on everything from the administration’s southern-border policy to Hunter Biden’s personal life and business dealings. Some members of the House GOP conference want to pursue the impeachment of Biden Cabinet officials such as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and potentially even the president himself, but it was already questionable whether Republicans could muster the votes for those moves with such a small number to spare.

McCarthy must confront how to raise the debt ceiling and how to keep the government open when the current fiscal year ends on September 30. His opponents have extracted promises that he’ll seek deep spending cuts alongside each task, which will undoubtedly be opposed by Democrats, who hold an equal share of power in the Senate and in the White House. Even before reports of his concessions were confirmed, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, issued a statement warning that the GOP’s proposed budget cuts were “all but guaranteeing a shutdown.”

For McCarthy, however, those are crises for another day. For now, he has won over just enough of his critics, and with them, the speakership. All he had to do was sacrifice power, and no small part of his dignity, to get it.