Kevin McCarthy will be speaker of the House after eking out a majority on the 15th ballot, ending a grueling four days of GOP infighting that left the country without a functioning chamber of the legislative branch.
The vote, which concluded early Saturday morning, marks the completion of a comeback for the California Republican, who’s risen throughout his party’s House leadership for more than a decade. Yet his victory also illuminated the frailty of his leadership mandate, as McCarthy was forced throughout four days of voting to make significant concessions to his right flank that will make him constantly vulnerable to challenge.
“Look, the president has called this process an embarrassment, talking heads have labeled this chaos and a mess, and some would call it shambolic even, but it’s called democracy,” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said as he nominated McCarthy on the House floor. “We know it’s messy. We know it’s messy, but open and transparent debate is what sets us apart from authoritarian regimes.”
McCarthy ultimately prevailed with 216 votes after six conservatives switched their votes to present, reversing their previous opposition to his nomination. That followed 14 other holdout Republicans flipping their votes to McCarthy during the 12th ballot and another, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), switching to McCarthy on the 13th one.
Speaking after his victory, McCarthy nodded to his lengthy battle for the gavel in a remark directed at House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.): “Hakeem, I got to warn you, two years ago I got 100 percent of the vote from my conference.” He added to Jeffries: “Our debates will be passionate. They will never be personal.”
Jeffries ran rhythmically through the alphabet as he prepared to hand over the gavel to McCarthy to a mix of boos and cheers from different sides of the chamber.
“Freedom over fascism. Governing over gaslighting. Hopefulness over hatred. Inclusion over isolation. Justice over judicial overreach. Knowledge over kangaroo courts. Liberty over limitation, Maturity over Mar-a-Lago,” he said on the floor.
It followed a tense and chaotic floor scene as McCarthy lost the 14th ballot for speaker with Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) having to be pulled away from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on the House floor.
“For the fifteenth and God willing final time, Kevin McCarthy,” Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.) said moments before midnight. Cheers broke out of “one more time” from Republicans as the final vote began.
The final vote capped a frantic day for Republican leadership allies as they looked to round up the decisive votes. Two members — Reps.-elect Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Wesley Hunt (R-Texas) — were out of Washington at the start of the day only to dash back for the evening session. Hunt, who just had a newborn son, got a round of applause and a pat on the back from McCarthy after returning to cast his vote.
Some of those who opposed McCarthy in prior days said the concessions they won throughout the process would improve the operations of the House significantly.
Asked what influenced his decision to flip and back McCarthy, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) said: “The work we’ve done, the good faith efforts that we have done these last four days to make this place substantively better and i think we are there.”
The historic ballot came two years to the day after the Jan. 6 insurrection, as the House is mired in a different breed of crisis over the speakership — one with a direct line back to the violent riot that appeared blurrier than ever on Friday.
Some of the same conservatives who have submerged the House in gridlock were the most vocal supporters of Donald Trump’s effort to challenge the 2020 election two years ago.
Yet their rebellion against McCarthy this week at times underscored how diminished Trump’s influence is over his party’s right flank: The former president’s endorsement of the California Republican did nothing at first to dislodge his 20 dissenters, and Trump had to make a round of later calls to try to persuade conservative critics.
Nor were the concessions McCarthy made to get the gavel an easy sell with his moderate backers, many of whom represent districts won by Biden. They fretted over of the number of concessions made to the right.
“If this remains the face of the GOP in 2024 we will get pummeled in the Presidential and Congressional elections,” said centrist Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.). “We would have won more seats in 2022, but too many feared the extremes in the GOP even before this.“
Meanwhile, Democrats hung together on ballot after ballot, united and forcing Republicans to find the votes on their own to get McCarthy over the top. They passed the time during the lengthy votes in different ways — Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) was spotted reading “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” on the floor.
The end of the speakership impasse also means members can at last be sworn into office, even though most of their families missed the usual pomp and circumstance that comes along with the start of a new Congress.
“I think all of us, regardless of our families being gone or things being delayed, we’re just very proud to be here in this part of the job and we understand it isn’t always going to go the way it’s expected,” Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) said.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.