In the end, Kevin McCarthy didn’t need to twist any arms to become Speaker of the House.
He just had to open up the safe of congressional goodies—and survive some last-minute GOP drama.
Late Friday night into early Saturday morning, after four days and 15 rounds of voting that saw McCarthy literally begging for votes on the House floor—as well as a senior lawmaker having to be physically restrained from fighting Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)—McCarthy at last earned the votes needed to win the speaker’s gavel.
He was still short of the 218-vote majority typically needed to win a speaker election, but six of McCarthy’s most bitter GOP holdouts voted present Friday night to finally—technically—give McCarthy the majority. McCarthy won the vote 216-212, with those six present GOP votes.
Far from being a coronation or even a modest victory lap for McCarthy, Friday’s outburst of chaos and ugliness seemed to encapsulate the angry and tortured process that elevated him to the speakership—and could presage the nastiness of fights yet to come as the House GOP begins its work.
Before the 10 p.m. vote, as the House was opening with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, Gaetz went over to McCarthy’s floor director, John Leganski. They had a spirited conversation that concluded with Gaetz walking away in a less than pleased manner.
As members voted one by one, Gaetz chose not to say anything when his name was called. That didn’t appear to be part of the plan.
Soon after Gaetz missed his turn to vote, one of McCarthy’s top deputies, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), tried talking with Gaetz at the back of the chamber. The conversation ended with Gaetz walking away in yet another exasperated mood.
Gaetz sat down next to Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), who had just earned a standing ovation for voting “present.” Soon, McHenry went over to Gaetz and began intensely working both him and Boebert. It became clear to GOP leaders that, whatever understanding they had with Gaetz before the vote was called, it was not the understanding they had now.
McHenry listened to Gaetz and he spiritedly made his points, banging his hands against each other as he grew increasingly frustrated with McHenry.
Meanwhile, McCarthy and other Republicans seemed oblivious to the problems. This was the vote, after four days of failures, that was finally supposed to deliver McCarthy the gavel.
But when Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT) also voted for Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), instead of voting “present,” it became clear that McCarthy was going to be one vote shy if Gaetz also voted “present” instead of for McCarthy.
The lobbying intensified, and when the vote ended, Leganski seemed to inform McCarthy that he was still a vote short. The packed chamber was unusually quiet. McCarthy sauntered over to Gaetz and Boebert as the entirety of the House of Representatives watched. Everyone was silent, as 434 members tried to listen to the conversation.
But McCarthy didn’t seem to be making any progress, and just as he was walking away, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL)—the expected incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee—went over to Gaetz and started to say something.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC), who tailed Rogers as he went over to Gaetz, grabbed Rogers and held him back, literally muzzling him so he couldn’t say whatever it was that he had on his mind. Rogers then quickly left the floor.
While McCarthy soon left the scrum, too, McHenry stayed and continued working Gaetz. But ultimately, it wasn’t Gaetz who flipped. The other Republican holdouts all seemed to have a change of heart, potentially because of a phone call with former President Donald Trump. A photographer caught a picture of Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) rushing over to Rosendale to hand him a phone that had “DT” on the other line.
Soon after, there seemed to be some movement. Republicans, who had been voting to adjourn until Monday, suddenly flipped their votes so that they could stay in session and elect McCarthy speaker.
McCarthy shouted to his colleagues, “Take your seats and do it one more time!”
The vote started and the drama ended quickly. Biggs, near the front of the alphabetically called roll, flipped his vote from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) on the previous ballot to “present.” Soon after, Rep.-elect Elijah Crane (R-AZ), who had voted for Biggs on the previous ballot, also switched to “present.” Both votes meant Gaetz could still vote “present,” and McCarthy would have the bare minimum he needed to secure the speakership.
When the vote was called just after midnight on Saturday morning, McCarthy received a raucous round of applause, signing autographs for members and hugging fellow Republicans.
With grinding determination, and through hours of haggling and negotiation, McCarthy whittled down the ranks of his detractors by identifying what they wanted—and then agreeing to give it to them.
The deal McCarthy struck with the 20-some GOP lawmakers who had opposed his speakership bid is a wishlist for the House Freedom Caucus, the hardline faction of which nearly all the 20 are members.
McCarthy is poised to allow just one member of Congress to force a vote to oust the speaker, shift the balance of power to the Freedom Caucus on the all-important Rules Committee—the gatekeeper for what legislation and amendments the House votes on—and distribute those members on other influential panels.
Beyond that, McCarthy is committed to not raising the federal debt ceiling without pairing it with spending cuts, as well as pushing for significant cuts to both domestic and defense spending, and potentially not approving more Ukraine aid.
“I just think we should check in,” quipped Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), “and make sure McCarthy still has two kidneys.”
All of these changes amount to locking McCarthy in a golden set of handcuffs. In order to become speaker, McCarthy had to make promises that will be hard to keep—while giving his most determined critics the power to boot him if he doesn’t follow through.
For McCarthy, the hard part is just beginning. Simply earning the votes to become speaker was painful; passing vital legislation to fund the government, or avert a catastrophic default on the debt, could be downright torturous. But true to the governing philosophy of House Republican leadership over the last decade, that’s tomorrow’s problem—and first leaders have to deal with today.
Asked if Republicans could govern going forward, Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE), a leading moderate, paused for a few seconds before saying yes. But, he added, “this is not a positive start.”
It is not the victory lap that McCarthy had in mind when he walked into the Capitol on Tuesday aiming to win the speakership in relatively short order. But it’s a victory nonetheless, likely made sweeter for McCarthy by his failure to win the position in 2015 and his four years as GOP leader in the minority.
As McCarthy told CBS News on Thursday, his slog to be speaker is a demonstration that he “never quits.” He boasted “you’ll be calling me the comeback kid” by the time the process is over.
But McCarthy and GOP leadership win today guarantees plenty of losses and headaches going forward.
Coming out of a chamber that’s been metaphorically on fire for days, armed with a new rules package that’s practically gasoline, House Republicans Friday night swore they were undeterred by their upcoming legislative mayhem. And, if you ask them, there’s little reason to fear the precedent the week set: a small faction of defectors can hold up policy for days on end.
Some argued the new provisions allowing amendments and reported concessions to place more ultra-conservatives on key committees will keep fights away from the House floor and ensure bills are fully fleshed out and drama-free before they get there.
“It requires us to do the work that’s required to be done in committee,” Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) said. “So instead of everybody going, ‘Well, we got to try to bust on to the floor at the end,’ which is ugly, we know already. And so it’s, like, OK, let's do this work in committees like we’re supposed to.”
“You want to get these people’s input early on,” said Bacon. “Then people have a stake in it. So actually, we think this is a smart move.”
While seats on the Rules Committee may seem like the type of concession no one should really care about, it’s actually a hugely consequential development. With three seats on the Rules Committee, and only a two-seat majority for Republicans, the Freedom Caucus members who are appointed to Rules—colloquially referred to as “The Speaker’s Committee”—will have a direct say over the bills and amendments that make it to the floor.
For years, speakers have locked down the process on the House floor using the Rules Committee. Instead of letting any member offer an amendment to legislation, leaders have only approved the amendments they want to vote on—and locked out all the rest.
Seats on the Rules Committee is a chance to actually shape the legislative product—and veto the speaker’s fingerprint on bills.
One risk of McCarthy’s maneuvering is that, on several fronts, he would alienate moderates by going too far to appease hardliners. But some lawmakers cast his moves to install conservatives to key positions as potentially beneficial to the center-right wing of the party, too.
“Having an equal balance on committees, by the way, it’s not so snappy,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), co-chair of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus. “It’s not just Freedom Caucus seats on committees. It benefits people like us, right? I mean, they want each committee to reflect the conference.”
Aside from policy maneuvering, some more administrative rules changes, like removing metal detectors from outside the House chamber and ending proxy voting, have been welcomed by the entire caucus. But one rule change pushed by the hardliner faction—the motion to “vacate the chair”—still has some members on edge.
The rule, which former Speaker Nancy Pelosi originally nixed, would allow any one member to call for a vote to remove the speaker from the position. McCarthy at first appeared adamantly against it, and moderate members said they would only agree to the change if 30 or more members were required to initiate the vote.
But through negotiations, McCarthy went down to offering a threshold of five members to force a vote to vacate. Last night, he reportedly went further down to the lowest possible threshold: one.
Some moderates fear the emboldened conservative wing of the conference could use the rule willy nilly. Or that it could be a scare tactic used against McCarthy in negotiations.
Bacon said “I don’t really like” the motion. “But life isn’t easy sometimes,” he said. “You take what you can get.”
When it comes to policy commitments McCarthy may have made, center-right Republicans were more circumspect. The most potentially explosive promises revolve around the debt limit.
Sometime later this year, the federal government is supposed to reach the limit on its borrowing authority, requiring Congress to extend it. Conservative Republicans, now in control of the House, don’t want to do so without securing spending cuts—a commitment McCarthy seems to have made this week.
With Democrats controlling the White House and Senate already ruling out any spending cuts, the stage is set for a dangerous game of chicken in which one player is eager to risk the full faith and credit of the U.S. government to advance its goals.
As negotiations played out Friday afternoon, several were reluctant to comment on policy elements of the deal that was taking shape. But Fitzpatrick pointedly noted that McCarthy and the hardliners are not the only ones with power in the conference. “We have our voting cards, and there’s a tight margin, so nothing crazy is going to survive the floor of the House,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
And when asked by The Daily Beast about McCarthy potentially ensuring a debt ceiling fight, Fitzpatrick noted the power of the discharge petition—a maneuver that allows a small group of members to force a vote on a piece of legislation. Members of both parties have speculated that a small faction of Republicans, working with Democrats, could use the discharge petition to pass a debt ceiling increase should GOP demands bring the country close to a default.
McCarthy’s victory comes after a long, grueling process that saw members on the floor go from cheery attitudes on their first day back from break to yelling at one another from across the room.
At the start of the week, lawmakers were joined by their families on Capitol Hill while dressed in their best attire—all in preparation to be sworn in for the new term. By the end, many Republicans had been surviving off of takeout dinners served behind closed doors while spending hours negotiating details of a deal.
On the floor, members prayed, laughed, yelled, ate popcorn, used their coats as blankets on late nights and were accused of drinking, with much pushback. Over time, members had grown noticeably more quiet before an uptick in energy as McCarthy regained momentum.
The so-called “Only Kevin” faction managed to retain all but one member along the way, even amid reports of McCarthy’s allies going restless and insisting a withdrawal could be called for.
The Never Kevin faction went from a disjointed effort to elect someone other than McCarthy, to an effort to elect Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), to an effort to elect Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) and then back to a grab-bag of varying nominations, ranging from former President Trump to Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK), whose shared first name with McCarthy became a punchline.
Every time a McCarthy defector flipped their vote on Friday, the speaker’s allies erupted in cheers. As the cohort of McCarthy no votes grew smaller, they began packing themselves into adjoining seats. And on Friday, this was all with the Jan. 6 anniversary looming in the background.
Democrats had a moment of silence on the Capitol steps Friday morning, with many growing emotional. In 2022, the first anniversary had been the centerpiece of the day on Capitol Hill. Members had multiple events of remembrance. This year, those sentiments became somewhat muddled amid the speaker chaos, but set an undertone for the day.
The week’s events also add to a growing precedent of chaos for new congressional terms. In 2019, members were sworn in amid the longest government shutdown in history. In 2021, they were subject to an insurrection on their third day of work. In 2023, the most intense, drawn-out speaker battle since the Civil War paralyzed the chamber for four days.
Now with a speaker—and rules package—in hand, Congress can finally begin business as usual. Members are expected to be sworn in soon, committees can begin hiring staff, new members can get up and running, security clearances should be renewed, and offices’ work helping constituents may resume.
With that, Republicans can also begin moving their ambitious fiscal goals through committee—while simultaneously bracing for the impact their new rules changes will bring. Their planned investigations can begin too, which are sure to raise temperatures in a House that has already shown it has absolutely no chill.
On Friday, as Republicans inched toward a deal, few seemed to have answers as to how—after all this—Kevin McCarthy could possibly hold it together. Asked that question, Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN) appealed to a higher power than the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
“A lot of prayer, brother,” Burchett said. “That’s all I can tell you.”