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Kevin McCarthy Wins Election as House Speaker After Days of Grueling Negotiations

The Wall Street Journal · 01/07/2023 00:40

By Natalie Andrews and Eliza Collins

WASHINGTON -- Republican Kevin McCarthy won election as House speaker on the 15th ballot after days of grueling negotiations that turned detractors in his favor for the chamber's top job, and forced leadership to make concessions to the party's far-right members up to the last moment of sometimes-heated discussions on the House floor.

The victory marked a personal achievement for Mr. McCarthy, 57, who had failed to secure the speakership more than seven years ago, and clawed his way to a win early Saturday morning after four days of repeated rejections.

Mr. McCarthy got 216 votes to 212 for Democrat Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), with six members voting present.

Mr. McCarthy will be in control of the GOP's only power center in a divided capital. He agreed to several demands in order to bring on board his opponents, including giving them more power to shape spending bills and roles on committees.

The battle, as Republicans themselves called it this week, reached its most tense moment on Friday night when Mr. McCarthy failed on the 14th ballot, which Republicans had hoped to win. Lawmakers waited until 10 p.m. to start the vote so that two Republicans could fly into Washington after leaving.

However, after all ballots were counted, Mr. McCarthy fell one vote short. His floor staff approached him, shaking their heads. He walked across the House floor to where Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz was seated and lobbied him personally. Mr. Gaetz has opposed Mr. McCarthy, though on Friday changed his vote to present.

Because Mr. McCarthy needed the majority of all those present and voting, he needed another vote by name. Mr. Gaetz, who has fundraised on his opposition to the California Republican, appeared to shake his body and shrug. As Mr. McCarthy turned to walk away, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama lunged at Mr. Gaetz and was pulled away by his colleagues.

Republicans moved to adjourn but during that vote amid a flurry of discussions, Republicans began changing their votes to start a fifteenth ballot. In that round, Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Elijah Crane of Arizona and Bob Good of Virginia changed their votes to present, lowering the threshold Mr. McCarthy needed to win.

The House hasn't had this many failed votes since before the Civil War, when it took 44 attempts to get a speaker. This year's vote was the first time in 100 years that a speaker didn't win on the first ballot. Mr. McCarthy's inability to win the speakership ballots has frozen all House business, instead forcing members to sit and listen as the clerk -- who is in charge of the House without a speaker -- ticks through an alphabetical roll call of lawmakers asking for their vote. Because the speaker contest is the first vote members take, they still haven't been sworn in, meaning they can't vote or serve on committees. There are also no official House rules.

Mr. McCarthy made several concessions on rules and agreements with his 20 detractors to get votes to move in his direction on Friday, and it had seemed he might have enough votes to win.

The agreement, according to people familiar with the matter, hashed out many of the policy fights that lawmakers expect to have this year over the debt ceiling and spending. They include a commitment to voting on specific bills; tying spending cuts to a debt-ceiling increase; and a rules change that makes it easier to oust him as leader. He also agreed to add more members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus to key committees.

"When someone is really willing to follow through on their plan, they are not afraid of really handing that power back to the representatives, " said Rep.-elect. Anna Paulina Luna, a Florida freshman, who voted against Mr. McCarthy several times until switching Friday.

Rep. French Hill (R., Ark.), an ally of Mr. McCarthy who has been involved in the negotiations, said lawmakers agreed to have spending cuts tied to any legislation regarding the debt ceiling, which Congress might need to raise later this year to avoid a default on the nation's debt. Democrats are adamant that they won't allow Republicans to pressure them into using the debt limit to cut federal programs.

"There will be no clean increase in the debt ceiling," said Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.), chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a member who changed his vote in favor of Mr. McCarthy.

Part of the agreement calls for the House to pass a resolution outlining how it would balance the federal budget within a decade, said people familiar with the matter. That could involve attempts to raise the eligibility age for such programs as Social Security and Medicare, as well as widespread cuts across other programs. Republicans aren't likely to back tax increases. In 2032, under current law, federal revenue is expected to be $6.7 trillion, and federal spending is expected to be $8.9 trillion, so balancing the budget with spending cuts alone would require eliminating more than $1 for every $4 the government is projected to spend.

Other people familiar with the matter said the deal would make it easier to amend legislation and how and when lawmakers vote on spending bills.

Negotiators also agreed to pass a bill that averts a government shutdown if Congress hasn't passed appropriations bills by the funding deadline through the enactment of a continuing resolution that cuts spending. That legislation would need to be passed by the Senate and signed by President Biden, which is unlikely. Most Republicans are opposed to funding the government using another omnibus spending bill that Congress has passed over the past few years.

Mr. Perry has also said limiting earmarks, or funding for specific projects in member's districts, was being discussed. Many of Mr. McCarthy's detractors were upset that their party voted to allow earmarks back into spending bills after being banned for years.

The 15 GOP votes that switched in Mr. McCarthy's favor Friday afternoon demonstrated his political momentum after days of a stalemate.

Fourteen lawmakers changed from voting against Mr. McCarthy or voting "present" in the 12th round to back him. Then, in the 13th round, Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland became the 15th Republican to change his vote in favor of Mr. McCarthy. Still, there were six Republicans who continued to vote against Mr. McCarthy.

At least two Republicans said they couldn't be convinced. Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, one of the holdouts, said on Twitter that he had no intention of changing his vote. Rep. Bob Good of Virginia published an essay in the New York Times Friday night titled 'I'm One of the Last Holdouts Against Kevin McCarthy -- and I Won't Back Down.'

If all 434 House members are present and voting, Mr. McCarthy must win 218 votes, so he can lose no more than four members. There are 222 Republicans and 212 Democrats with one vacancy in the House.

Mr. McCarthy's allies expressed optimism that the process could be finished Friday night.

"We're going to elect a speaker," Rep. Ann Wagner (R., Mo.) said. "He will be sworn in. He will swear us in, and we will pass a rules package, and hope that people can catch flights home tomorrow."

As lawmakers began to grow weary and worry that negotiators were giving too much to the far-right detractors, Rep. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, on a Friday morning call with House Republicans emphasized that the deal wasn't going to hurt moderate Republicans or take away chairmanships from those who have supported Mr. McCarthy, according to two people familiar with the situation.

Friday marked the first time that Mr. McCarthy received more votes than the Democratic nominee, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, in the 12th series. Republicans cheered each lawmaker who changed a vote with a standing ovation.

Rep. David Trone, a Democrat from Maryland, hurried back to the Capitol to make the 13th vote after having surgery that morning and missing the 12th series. When Mr. Trone voted in the 13th round, still in his slippers and hospital socks, he was greeted with cheers from Democrats.

Two supporters of Mr. McCarthy were out Friday: Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado and Wesley Hunt of Texas. Mr. Buck had to return home for a planned nonemergency medical procedure, his aide said. Mr. Hunt went home because his son was born this week. A person familiar with their travel plans said both would be back by the next series of votes Friday night.

--Richard Rubin contributed to this article.

Write to Natalie Andrews at natalie.andrews@wsj.com and Eliza Collins at eliza.collins@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 07, 2023 00:40 ET (05:40 GMT)

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