Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) was elected speaker of the House early Saturday morning after four days and 15 ballots, resuscitating a chamber that had been paralyzed as it endured the longest struggle to elect a leader since before the Civil War.
“That was easy, huh?” McCarthy joked after receiving the speaker’s gavel from House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).
“I hope one thing’s clear after this week,” he said later. “I never give up.”
McCarthy’s long-delayed triumph marks the high point of a congressional career he began as a staffer for former Rep. Bill Thomas more than three decades ago.
But the Republican leader’s victory came at a price. In order to secure the votes required to succeed his fellow Californian Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) as speaker, McCarthy had to agree to a series of compromises that dramatically weaken the power of the post.
The deals McCarthy struck with a group of fewer than two-dozen hard-line Republicans will empower the far right of his party ahead of a congressional term that promises contentious battles over funding the federal government and increasing the debt ceiling.
“And so one of the strongest House Speakers in American history is succeeded by what is likely to be one of the weakest,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss tweeted early Saturday.
Before finally securing the gavel, McCarthy lost his 14th ballot for speaker Friday evening in the most dramatic fashion possible, falling a single vote shy of the outright majority he needed.
After Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida voted “present,” McCarthy tallied 216 of 432 votes.
Gaetz, who missed his name when it was first called, became the decisive vote to determine whether McCarthy would become speaker or continue his historic losing streak.
McCarthy and other Republicans approached Gaetz after his vote, seemingly pleading with him to change it and end the speakership fight. But Gaetz remained unmoved, and the vote closed without electing a speaker.
Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) was restrained by a colleague after approaching Gaetz.
At one point, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tried to hand Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) her cellphone: Former President Trump was calling. But Rosendale waved her off.
House Republicans had moved to adjourn until Monday afternoon after the 14th stunning defeat, but ultimately opposed their own motion and chanted for one more vote.
The nature of McCarthy’s final bargain was not immediately apparent. But the rules package House Republicans hope to pass next week will reportedly allow a single member to force a vote to oust the speaker.
The far right also won seats on the powerful Rules Committee for members of the House Freedom Caucus and their allies. The panel, which controls how debates are conducted and bills advance in the House, is traditionally filled with allies of the speaker.
The newly minted speaker swore in members of Congress as a group shortly before 2 a.m. Saturday, but the next test of how united House Republicans are now will come after a debate on the rules package Monday.
“I am a NO on the house rules package,” Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) tweeted earlier Friday. “Welcome to the 118th Congress.”
McCarthy’s victory came on the 15th speaker ballot. The chamber had adjourned Friday afternoon until 10 p.m. to allow two McCarthy supporters to return to Washington to get him over the top. McCarthy had flipped 15 votes his way earlier Friday — nearly enough to clinch the speaker’s gavel on the 13th ballot.
The pause in the action allowed Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Wesley Hunt (R-Texas), who had missed the 12th and 13th votes, to return to the Capitol, increasing McCarthy’s vote total from 214 to 216.
The House has 435 seats, with one currently vacant. If every member voted, McCarthy needed to win 218 votes to secure a majority and the speakership — unless members voted “present” to lower the threshold. Friday’s hours-long break gave him more time to flip some of the remaining six Republican holdouts and hit his magic number.
On the final vote, all six holdouts voted “present,” lowering the total number of votes cast to 428 and the majority required to win the gavel to 215. Those six “present” votes ensured that by holding on to the same 216 votes he received on the 14th ballot, McCarthy could secure the speakership.
“Over these last few days, Kevin McCarthy has allowed this process to work among House Republicans, and he’s empowered members to come together to find consensus on behalf of conservative policy and a greater involvement of all voices throughout our conference. We’ve all played a part,” Patrick McHenry of North Carolina said in his nominating speech Friday evening. “He’s relentless. The man does not quit.”
McCarthy’s vote total had fallen as low as 200 on Thursday. But Republicans began to move in his direction Friday afternoon, and each flip was met with raucous applause from the GOP side of the aisle.
On the second anniversary of the Capitol insurrection, the GOP-controlled House remained far from under control until the very end.
Only four other Congresses required more roll call votes for speaker before a winner emerged.
Committee chairs will be able to launch investigations and hold hearings once rules are adopted, and legislation will be able to begin moving. Members will also regain access to national security intelligence and be able to begin helping constituents.
Six hard-right Republicans had positioned themselves for months as hard “no” votes against McCarthy. Some sent fundraising emails this week highlighting their opposition to the GOP leader.
Although they stayed true to their word, refusing to vote for McCarthy even on the final ballot, they ultimately cleared the way for him by voting “present.”
President Biden congratulated McCarthy on his election and said he was prepared to work with Republicans.
“And voters made clear that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well,” he said in a statement. “Now that the leadership of the House of Representatives has been decided it is time for that process to begin.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) took a different approach.
“Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s dream job could turn into a nightmare for the American people,” he said in a statement. “To get the votes, he surrendered to demands of a fringe element of the Republican Party. Kevin McCarthy’s concessions to the extremists in his party make it far more likely that the MAGA Republican controlled House will cause a government shutdown or a default with devastating consequences to our country.”
McCarthy secured the speakership only with a late surge. Until Friday, Jeffries had led every ballot with 212 votes, a show of unity among House Democrats. On the 12th ballot, McCarthy finally surpassed Jeffries, notching 213 to Jeffries’ 211.
McCarthy maintained a lead on the 13th and 14th ballots. But the House remained in a state of paralysis until McCarthy was elected after midnight.
“You only earn the position of speaker of the House if you can get the votes,” Gaetz said on the floor earlier Friday. “Mr. McCarthy doesn’t have the votes today. He will not have the votes tomorrow, and he will not have them next week, next month, next year.”
Hours later, McCarthy was elected speaker.