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How a Tense Late-Night Push Finally Won Kevin McCarthy the Speaker's Gavel

The Wall Street Journal · 01/07/2023 18:44

By Eliza Collins, Natalie Andrews, Siobhan Hughes and Lindsay Wise

WASHINGTON -- Shortly after 2 a.m. Saturday morning, Kevin McCarthy finally saw the sign he had been waiting for his entire political career. Hung above an office on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol were the words: "SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE KEVIN MCCARTHY."

"Oh yes!" he exclaimed, before asking someone standing nearby to snap a picture. "Sweet! See that?" he said to the crush of reporters gathered around him. "It was worth the wait."

The House of Representatives elected Mr. McCarthy speaker early Saturday morning after a grueling 15 rounds of voting that turned a general formality into a slog stretched over four days. It marked the first time in 100 years that the speaker wasn't chosen on the first vote, and the number of ballots it took was the most of any election since before the Civil War. The votes were punctuated by extraordinary scenes rarely witnessed in the usually highly choreographed deliberations of Congress.

The week saw Mr. McCarthy capitulate to nearly every demand made by 20 Republican members from his party's right flank, including one critical rule change that will make it easier for those members to topple him if they are unhappy. It also put on display the respect he has from his backers, with routine standing ovations every time he voted for himself, even as vote after vote failed.

To win the job, Mr. McCarthy agreed to restore a rule allowing a single member to call a snap vote on ousting the speaker. The concessions also include commitments to tie spending cuts to a debt-ceiling increase and to a process making it easier to amend individual spending bills, according to several negotiators and people familiar with the talks. And they include a goal of putting more members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus on key committees, including the Rules Committee, which for years has written rules to block amendments from coming up on the House floor.

"I ran out of things to ask for," Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida told reporters after he, along with the other five remaining detractors, voted "present" rather than against Mr. McCarthy on the 15th and final ballot. The move lowered the threshold required for Mr. McCarthy to be elected, capturing the speakership with 216 votes, rather than the 218 normally required.

Some of Mr. McCarthy's allies lamented that his concessions gave away too much of his power and will make it harder for him to govern the House's fractious GOP caucus.

The decision for Mr. McCarthy's final six detractors to vote present in a bloc came after a blockbuster series of events unfolded on the House floor late Friday night into the early hours of Saturday morning.

Republicans thought the California Republican had enough votes to win on the 14th ballot for the speakership when it got under way around 10 p.m. Friday. But midway through the vote, Mr. McCarthy and his team realized they were going to come up one vote short of a majority. A tense, public lobbying effort unfolded in the middle of the chamber as Mr. McCarthy's allies pressured Mr. Gaetz to come to Mr. McCarthy's rescue.

In an usual step, Mr. McCarthy walked to Mr. Gaetz and publicly implored him -- something he hadn't done publicly during any earlier votes. "On your knees!" someone shouted from the Democrats' side of the chamber as Mr. McCarthy asked Mr. Gaetz to change his mind. Lawmakers from both parties -- some murmuring, others jeering -- stood in their seats and craned their necks to watch.

When Mr. Gaetz refused, Mr. McCarthy spun on his heel and headed back down the aisle to his own seat. An enraged Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, who had been clashing with the McCarthy detractors all week, came over and said, "Matt Gaetz, you will regret this," according to Rep. Ralph Norman (R., S.C.), who was sitting nearby. Mr. Rogers leaned toward Mr. Gaetz, and Rep. Richard Hudson (R., N.C..) restrained him. "Be civil!" someone shouted.

"I made a statement and was about to walk away when I was grabbed," Mr. Rogers said in brief comments to The Wall Street Journal. "I was not lunging towards anyone."

In the midst of the melee, Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene of Georgia, a one-time foe of Mr. McCarthy who has become one of his strongest cheerleaders, appeared to have former President Donald Trump on her cellphone. She waved it in the air, trying to get the remaining holdouts to speak to Mr. Trump in the hope he could change their minds.

Mr. Trump eventually spoke with multiple lawmakers, and Mr. McCarthy told reporters the former president was key to getting the last holdouts to drop their opposition. "I don't think anyone should doubt his influence," Mr. McCarthy said.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R., N.C.), who was negotiating up to the last minute to win support for Mr. McCarthy, likened the drama to a roller-coaster ride and said the final showdown on the floor was without parallel in his 18 years on Capitol Hill.

"The preference in politics is to always suffer your indignities in private, not public. That was the goal," Mr. McHenry said. But by last weekend, he said, "it was evident that we would have to suffer this in public."

When the 14th vote failed, the House began voting to adjourn until Monday. Democrats, as they had been all week, were united in voting against the break because they wanted to keep the pressure on Republicans. In the middle of the vote, Mr. Gaetz went up to Mr. McCarthy and signaled a deal was in place. Mr. McCarthy smiled, put his hand on Mr. Gaetz's back and Republicans nearby started to applaud. "Vote no," Mr. McCarthy urged Republicans, who immediately began changing their votes so the motion to adjourn would fail.

At the start of the 15th ballot, tensions began to cool when Rep. Andy Biggs (R., Ariz.), the first of the holdouts to vote because of the alphabetical-order roll call, switched his vote to "present." Then Rep. Elijah Crane (R., Ariz.) switched his vote to "present." That meant at least four of the six holdouts would now be on record as present, leaving Mr. McCarthy with essentially a clear path to victory.

Mr. McCarthy, who had led Republicans when they were in the minority, had expected things to go more smoothly. He had been preparing for this moment for years by shoring up support from the party's different factions.

Going into the 2022 midterms, analysts had predicted Republicans would sweep into the House, and Mr. McCarthy expected most to be allies of his since he campaigned so aggressively on their behalf. Supporters said he slept more often in a Marriott last year than in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif. He raised more than $100 million for candidates in the 2022 cycle.

Republicans barely won the majority, getting 222 lawmakers in the 435-seat House. That meant Mr. McCarthy could lose no more than four votes if all House lawmakers were present and voting for a candidate by name. There are currently 212 House Democrats and one seat is vacant.

In the months leading up to the speaker vote, Mr. McCarthy worked to peel off detractors to no avail. The reasons the members opposed him varied.

Some, like Mr. Gaetz, had longstanding grudges with Mr. McCarthy and his leadership style. Mr. Norman said he was unhappy with spending levels. Others, such as Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, sought to restore a rule that would allow a single member to call a vote to force the speaker to vacate the chair. That rule had been in place during previous sessions of Congress and complicated GOP Speaker John Boehner's tenure. It was removed under former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) in 2019. Still more complained generally about the way the House had been run and the need to make it easier for conservatives to influence legislation.

The week unfolded on live TV as a chamber full of adults and some of their restless children waited for the vote to wrap up so they could be sworn in, and a layer of cigar smoke hung over the chamber from a nearby room. Because the vote for speaker is the first thing to happen in a new Congress, the business of the House was frozen until one was selected. There were no formal rules on the floor, and members took videos and photos throughout the proceedings.

During this past week, the McCarthy detractors met in the mornings at the Conservative Partnership Institute on Capitol Hill, where breakfast included bacon, eggs and fruit. Formed more than five years ago to provide a place for conservatives to network, the GOP dissidents had been meeting there for months to solidify their opposition.

Mr. McCarthy appeared to make no clear progress until Thursday, and lawmakers said he almost came to the brink of losing more support. At one point, some of his allies began to openly discuss an alternative. Rep. Ken Buck (R., Colo.) on Wednesday told reporters that he had said to Mr. McCarthy: "You've got to either cut this deal, or you've got to give Steve a chance or others a chance," referring to Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.), Mr. McCarthy's No. 2.

Pressure on the detractors from their Republican colleagues also went from a simmer to a boil and made them more willing to negotiate with Mr. McCarthy's key allies. On Thursday, the action shifted from the House floor to backroom offices where the lawmakers involved began to hash out a deal.

The concessions Mr. McCarthy made to secure the speakership could cause friction with the party's center flank. Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, a McCarthy ally who works across the aisle, said she was "not OK" with some decisions that had been made, though it didn't change her vote for Mr. McCarthy.

Mr. McCarthy has long known he was stepping into a difficult job.

In February of last year, as he was planning for this eventual moment, he told the Journal in an interview: "It's Republican nature that they want to take down their leaders. It's just what they do."

--Alex Leary contributed to this article.

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January 07, 2023 18:44 ET (23:44 GMT)

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