After a bruising few days and a gauntlet of failed votes, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) finally became speaker of the House just after midnight on Saturday.
It can’t have been the victory lap he imagined, seven years after he, as heir apparent to the exiting John Boehner, had to withdraw his name from contention so as not to risk the shambolic spectacle of this last week.
Republicans tried to spin their dysfunction as healthy debate, a sign of a flourishing democracy. House Democrats, unusually gleeful for a party that just lost its majority, brought popcorn.
In the final hours on Friday night, McCarthy was finally projecting confidence: “I have the votes,” he said ahead of the 14th vote, at 10 p.m. ET. Yet that vote failed too when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) left McCarthy one vote short with his “present” vote, sending Republicans into an uproar and members nearly to blows.
In the end, McCarthy’s speakership was nearly lost to the same faction of the party he’s empowered during his time in leadership: the far-right wing. While he managed to win over a few from that contingent, the crux of the Never Kevins all came from its ranks.
The struggle portends the chaos to come, as McCarthy will have to manage the right-wing trolls, while not sending the newly elected purple district Republicans (and some blue district Republicans, particularly from New York) directly into the meat grinder in two years.
It also gives a clear indication of how this group of Republicans — thanks to the party’s disappointing midterm results, a big enough bloc to completely disrupt business — will operate in the majority. They’ve already indicated a desire to hold the debt ceiling hostage, threatening to spark total financial collapse in exchange for political concessions — chatter about which reemerged during McCarthy’s talks with the hardliners. None of it spells an easy time for Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Staking his political value and longevity on amenability and ideological flexibility, McCarthy has made a career out of avoiding punishing his party’s right flank when its members did everything from trying to overturn an election to posting threatening pictures of other members. The burn-it-all-down caucus repaid him by opposing his speakership for days, making him a historic figure by the sheer number of attempts it took for him to win the gavel.
The Never Kevins, including figures like Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Andy Biggs (R-GA) and Gaetz, started voicing their opposition to McCarthy’s ascension in the days before the vote. The resistance never seemed overly policy-focused: they were demanding some changes to House procedure — like making it easier to oust the speaker — but it’s also simply part of this group’s modus operandi to buck leadership and stymie the government’s functioning in a flashy way.
That motivation made things difficult as McCarthy tried to whip support over the week, especially while many of his opponents seemed to revel in the sheer muscle flex of stalling the new Congress for days.
Momentum finally started to swing McCarthy’s way Friday afternoon, when he picked up over a dozen new supporters — including key defectors like House Freedom Caucus Chair Rick Perry (R-PA) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) — and fell only a few votes shy of the majority needed. He also overcame to-be Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) in the tally for the first time.
The improved performance came after furious whipping and negotiations within the caucus; Perry said he’d only changed his vote because there was a “framework” for a deal “in place.”
But coming close doesn’t count in speakership elections. McCarthy didn’t win the 12th vote, where he’d picked up the new supporters, or the 13th.
He didn’t win the 14th either in an absolute stunner, after Gaetz voted “present,” leaving McCarthy a vote short. McCarthy immediately walked over to Gaetz, and the two had a tense conversation. McCarthy walked away with his hands up. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) came flying in to confront Gaetz seconds later, and was physically restrained by his colleagues.
Now, after days of embarrassing Republican disarray and 15 votes, McCarthy has been named speaker. What was once a near-automatic promotion came at the cost of days of publicly losing, kowtowing to the most radical part of his party, offering forced smiles for the camera and putting a couldn’t-make-this-up coda on Nancy Pelosi’s reign.
McCarthy got the gavel — but it couldn’t have been the triumph he pictured. And it doesn’t bode very well for his two years ahead.