WASHINGTON — Representative Kevin McCarthy of California won election early Saturday as House speaker in a historic five-day, 15-ballot floor fight, after giving major concessions to right-wing holdouts and weathering a dramatic late-night setback that underscored the limits of his power over the new Republican majority.
McCarthy clawed his way to victory by cutting a deal that won over a sizable contingent of ultraconservative lawmakers on the 12th and 13th votes earlier in the day, and then wearing down the remaining holdouts in a tense session that dragged on past midnight, ultimately winning with a bare majority, after a spectacle of arm-twisting and rancor on the House floor.
The protracted fight foreshadowed how difficult it would be for him to govern with an exceedingly narrow majority and an unruly hard-right faction bent on slashing spending and disrupting business in Washington. The speakership struggle that crippled the House before it had even opened its session suggested that basic tasks such as passing government funding bills or financing the federal debt would prompt epic struggles over the next two years.
Yet McCarthy, who was willing to endure vote after humiliating vote and give in to an escalating list of demands from his opponents to secure the post, denied that the process foretold any dysfunction.
“This is the great part,” he told reporters. “Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern.”
Despite the divisions on display, McCarthy also emphasized the theme of unity in a speech after taking the speaker’s gavel, pledging open debate and an open door to both Republicans and Democrats. “You can see what happens in the people’s House,” he said.
The floor fight dragged on for the better part of a week, the longest since 1859, and paralyzed the House, with lawmakers stripped of their security clearances because they could not be sworn in as official members of Congress until a speaker was chosen.
By Friday afternoon, McCarthy had won over 15 of the 21 Republicans who had defected, and he pressed into the night for more converts, a remarkable turnabout for a man who only days before appeared to be headed for defeat. His path was narrow until the end; only a few of the six remaining holdouts were seen as open to negotiating further.
With no votes to spare, McCarthy called two supporters back to Washington to cast critical votes in his favor: Reps. Ken Buck of Colorado and Wesley Hunt of Texas, who had returned home to be with his wife after her hospitalization for complications in the premature birth of their son this week.
As a 14th vote stretched into the night, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a stalwart holdout who had said she would never back McCarthy, cleared an obstacle to his election by voting “present.”
But just after 11 p.m. Friday night, McCarthy remained one vote short of what he needed to seal the deal. Rep.-elect Eli Crane of Arizona and Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana — the two holdouts who seemed most likely to move — both voted against him, leaving his fate in the hands of his lead tormentor, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.
Gaetz initially did not vote when his name was called. Instead, he waited until the end of the roll call to vote “present.” Republicans cheered, but it was not enough. McCarthy needed a “yes.”
McCarthy, who rarely moved from his seat over the days of votes, approached Gaetz and Boebert in their seats and appeared to be pleading with them to change their votes, his signature smile wiped from his face. At one point, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., had to be restrained after stepping toward Gaetz.
Gaetz refused to budge, and McCarthy’s allies moved to adjourn the House until Monday, crestfallen after a defeat they had not anticipated. But while the vote was being tallied, there appeared to be a breakthrough. Republicans quickly switched their votes to oppose the adjournment and proceeded to a 15th speaker vote, which ended well after midnight.
In the end, Crane, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Rep. Bob Good of Virginia and Rosendale all switched their votes to “present,” clearing the way for McCarthy to finally win the post that had so long eluded him. Gaetz again voted “present.”
The final tally was 216 for McCarthy and 212 for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader, with six, all Republicans, voting “present.”
With McCarthy elected, he immediately turned to swearing in the 434 members of the House to officially seat the 118th Congress. Republicans announced that they would wait until Monday to consider a package of rules for the chamber, which is expected to enshrine many of the compromises McCarthy made to win his post.
The concessions McCarthy agreed to, which he detailed in a party conference call early Friday, would diminish the speaker’s power considerably and make for an unwieldy environment in the House, where the slim Republican margin of control and the right-wing faction’s appetite for disarray had already promised to make it difficult to control.
“What we’re seeing is the incredibly shrinking speakership, and that’s most unfortunate for Congress,” former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said as she entered the chamber Friday afternoon.
McCarthy agreed to allow a single lawmaker to force a snap vote at any time to oust the speaker, a rule that he had previously refused to accept, regarding it as tantamount to signing the death warrant for his speakership in advance.
Also part of the proposal, Republicans familiar with it said, was a commitment by the leader to give the ultraconservative faction approval over a third of the seats on the powerful Rules Committee, which controls what legislation reaches the floor and how it is debated. He also agreed to open government spending bills to a freewheeling debate in which any lawmaker could force votes on proposed changes.
Those compromises delivered a breakthrough for McCarthy, who in votes Friday afternoon won support from a sizable chunk of the Republicans who had consistently refused to back him — though he remained short of the majority to win.
They included Reps. Dan Bishop of North Carolina, Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma, Michael Cloud of Texas, Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Byron Donalds and Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Andy Harris of Maryland, Mary Miller of Illinois, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Andy Ogles of Tennessee, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, and Chip Roy and Keith Self of Texas. Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana, who had voted “present” in previous ballots, also voted for McCarthy in the 12th vote.
“You never get everything you’re looking for,” said Perry, explaining his vote to reporters, and noting that “the biggest win is the overall framework of it.”
“The motion to vacate is accountability,” he added, referring to the measure allowing a snap vote to remove the speaker.
The prolonged election prompted tension and uncertainty in the Capitol, where lawmakers in both parties had grown impatient and bored awaiting the outcome of a high-stakes struggle that seemed at once monumental and absurd.
“From the outside, it looks like chaos,” said Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont. “From the inside, it is.”
Even the typically understated and apolitical House chaplain addressed the turmoil in her opening prayer Friday. As the chamber convened, the chaplain, Margaret Kibben, asked for mercy amid “exhausting frustration over the prolonged impasse.”
She acknowledged that the proceedings fell on the two-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, asking for protection from the “unease stemming from the memory of inconceivable unrest in these chambers two years ago.”
Left unmentioned was that many of the same rebels who helped lead the effort in Congress to overturn the 2020 election, giving rise to the assault that day, were also among the final holdouts working to block McCarthy’s ascent.
Her remarks came after Democrats, along with families of officers who lost their lives because of the Jan. 6 riot, held a somber vigil on the steps of the Capitol. There appeared to be just one Republican present: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.
The somber anniversary did not lead to comity on the House floor, as McCarthy’s fiercest holdout accused him in a bombastic speech of performing a fruitless exercise in vanity.
“He will not have the votes tomorrow, and he will not have the votes next week, next month, next year,” Gaetz said in a speech nominating Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio for speaker. “And so one must wonder, madam clerk, is this an exercise in vanity for someone who has done the math, taken the counts and is putting this institution through something that absolutely is avoidable?”
The vitriolic attack on the top candidate for speaker from a member of his own party led some of McCarthy’s supporters to walk off the House floor while he spoke. And by the end of the day, with the majority of the detractors finally coalescing around McCarthy, Gaetz appeared to have softened his tone.
“I think the House is in a lot better place with some of the work that’s been done to democratize power out of the speakership, and that’s our goal,” he said.
McCarthy’s supporters have bemoaned the drawn-out process and even praised Democrats for staying united despite their ideological differences.
“We’re ready to get to work,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who had been stripped of her committee assignments in the previous Congress. “I find it embarrassing. I’ve been here for two years without committees, and I’m really ready to get to work.”
She added: “I have to give props to the Democrats, they find ways to work together. I think we should find ways to work together.”
The dissidents praised the drawn-out process that has spotlighted their party’s rifts, made it impossible for legislative business to be conducted and threatened the timely issuance of paychecks on Capitol Hill.
“The American people have witnessed for the first time in this town in probably 100 years, if not more, a deliberative process, a legitimate deliberative process, about the future of leadership in the people’s body,” Donalds said. “That is monumental.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.