They say the fifteenth time’s the charm. After four long and humiliating days of House Republicans failing to elect a Speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy finally got the votes he needed to seal the deal, ending a historic standoff that resulted in him becoming the 55th person to lead the lower chamber.
Shortly after midnight Saturday, on the fifteen round of voting, the California lawmaker clinched the Speakership when enough of his detractors finally reversed course after holding the House hostage to their McCarthy antagonism all week. But that was not without a spectacle that seemed more befitting a television drama than an official government proceeding.
Leading up to the fourteenth ballot slated for 10 p.m. on Thursday, McCarthy and his allies were ready to pop the champagne. Both parties’ leaders were telling their caucuses to be prepared to stay until the wee hours of the morning. They were preparing to complete the arduous process of electing a Speaker, swearing in members, and passing a heavily negotiated rules package that was central to McCarthy’s agreement with his defactors, many of whom agreed to vote “present” rather than for another Republican to allow the debacle to end.
But as the votes came in, with the voting clerk calling on members alphabetically, it became clear that such an outcome was not in the immediate offing. One of the McCarthy holdouts, Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, voted for Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, leaving the outcome in the hands of perhaps the loudest McCarthy critic, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who missed his initial chance to vote, setting the scene for him to cast the decisive ballot at the end of the process. When it came to his turn, he voted “present,” leaving McCarthy a half-vote shy of a majority.
An intense scene on the House floor followed as McCarthy and his allies huddled with a grim-faced Gaetz. At one point, a frustrated Rep. Mike Rodgers of Alabama had to be physically restrained by a colleague from lunging toward Gaetz. Shortly thereafter, the House nearly adjourned until Monday, which would have left the imbroglio unresolved through the weekend. But then, in another plot twist, a group of members changed their votes to go into a fifteenth round of voting after several of the McCarthy detractors agreed to switch their votes. Their change of heart appeared to come after Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia put Gaetz, Biggs, and Rosendale on the phone with former President Donald Trump, who has been pushing for McCarthy. Minutes later, on the next round of voting, all of those legislators voted present, clearing the way for McCarthy’s victory.
But while McCarthy may have won the battle—albeit under embarrassing circumstances—he has arguably lost the larger war with the ultra-conservative rebels in his own party who want to fundamentally remake the way Congress operates.
To convert most of the group of 20 detractors who have held the House hostage all week, McCarthy gave, in the words of a senior Democratic House aide, “the kitchen sink.” He agreed to appoint more members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus to the powerful House Rules Committee, which determines which bills make it to the chamber’s floor, and the Appropriations Committee. More symbolically, he also allowed a rules change that will enable just one member to be able to call for a vote to oust the Speaker.
In other words, to gain the power of the Speaker’s gavel, McCarthy effectively disempowered himself.
One of McCarthy’s loudest detractors, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, admitted as much on Friday, shortly after the House voted to adjourn and come back at 10 p.m, acknowledging the likelihood that his arch nemesis would prevail. “It’s looking like it’s heading that way,” Gaetz told CNN. But, he added, McCarthy would have to govern with a “straightjacket.”
OLIVIER DOULIERY—AFP via Getty ImagesMcCarthy speaks to Rep. Matt Gaetz in the House Chamber on January 6, 2023.
For his part, McCarthy tried to downplay the idea that the protracted conflict was a bad omen for a highly dysfunctional House in the coming years. “This is the great part,” McCarthy told reporters Friday night. “Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern. So now we’ll be able to get the job done.”
Yet multiple House sources, Democrat and Republican alike, say that the concessions McCarthy has agreed to will make it exceedingly more difficult to pass legislation, particularly when it comes time to fund the government later this year. “We’re never going to pass a budget,” a senior Democratic House aide tells TIME.
McCarthy’s concessions have also created national security concerns. Bloomberg reported Friday that he agreed to cut $75 billion in defense funding—a measure that would need to be approved by the Senate—in response to the far-right’s antipathy toward helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia.
“Ronald Reagan taught us that weakness is provocative,” former Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, tweeted. “China and Russia are watching. If [McCarthy] agreed to weaken our national defense for his own personal gain, that will be his legacy, and our nation will suffer.”
Others have expressed alarm that the House would be unable to respond if the nation faced a serious crisis that would require Congressional action.
The House came back to session later in the evening to allow for two McCarthy allies who had left town—Reps. Ken Buck of Colorado and Wesley Hunt of Texas—to come back to get him over the top. The House’s failure to elect a Speaker for so long stretched the saga past the mark set in 1923, when it took the chamber 13 rounds of voting over three days. On Tuesday, the first day of the new congressional term, the House failed to elect a Speaker on the first ballot for the first time in a century.
McCarthy’s inability to whip the votes led to a whirlwind of speculation on Capitol Hill over a range of “nuclear options” to end the deadlock, such as some Republicans forming a coalition with Democrats to put up a moderate choice and grant the minority party chairs of half the committees. Some House members, including Gaetz, floated the idea of adopting a resolution to elect the Speaker based on a plurality vote, which, until McCarthy won over his defectors, would have led to the Democratic leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, winning the top post.
The concessions McCarthy made to get over the finish line stand to radically reshape the House, including through a provision in the new rules package that would effectively gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent panel that was preparing to investigate lawmakers who participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The move will remove the only body that conducts meaningful ethics oversight of lawmakers.
For now, though, McCarthy is surely happy to move past the quagmire. But as all signs suggest, it may not be that long until he is on the ropes again, fending off attacks from members of his own party, many of whom will regard him as a Speaker in name only.