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McCarthy Gets the Gavel in Dramatic Fashion
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McCarthy Gets the Gavel in Dramatic Fashion

After more than a dozen votes and days of negotiations, Kevin McCarthy becomes speaker of the House of Representatives.

Rep. Mike Rogers is restrained after getting into an argument with Rep. Matt Gaetz during the 14th round of voting for speaker of the House. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

It took a marathon 15 votes—and nearly came to physical blows—but eventually all the GOP members who for months have opposed Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker of the House folded. And in the wee hours of Saturday, he took the position he’s coveted for years.

Unlike the monotony of much of the week, the night had plenty of drama, culminating in McCarthy supporter Rep. Mike Rogers being physically restrained from Rep. Matt Gaetz after Friday night’s first vote.

But McCarthy, a 57-year-old California lawmaker, now succeeds Democrat Nancy Pelosi to become the 53rd speaker of the House. Though he secured the speaker’s gavel, concessions he made to a bloc of House Freedom Caucus members will likely decrease his power. The extent of the concessions, and the fine details of the agreement, remain unknown.

After a dozen failed votes, the outlook for McCarthy began to turn after late-night negotiations Thursday in which he began making concessions to Freedom Caucus members’ demands. He won over 14 of his 20 GOP detractors in a noon vote Friday, setting up the 14th vote of the week at 10 p.m. Clinching the remaining hold-outs—and getting past 50 percent of all votes cast—meant McCarthy could take no chances so two Republicans who left D.C. due to emergencies came back to boost his numbers. Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado returned after a medical appointment, and freshman Rep. Wesley Hunt of Texas flew back after having gone home to be with his wife and their prematurely born son—who had been in a neonatal intensive care unit.

The 14th ballot brought the drama. Despite bragging beforehand that he knew he had the votes “because I can count,” McCarthy fell short. Four hold-outs voted for someone other than McCarthy. Reps. Lauren Boebert and Gaetz both voted present, leaving McCarthy a half-vote shy of the majority needed to win. 

Gaetz’s present vote seemed to derail McCarthy, who approached him on the floor to implore him to change his mind. As McCarthy walked away in exasperation, Rogers rushed toward Gaetz before another member had to hold him back. 

Rogers, expected to chair the House Armed Services Committee, was reportedly upset that Gaetz was pushing for chairmanship of one of the panel’s subcommittees. (The Dispatch reported Friday on some rank-and-file lawmakers’s concerns that House Freedom Caucus members would leap-frog other members to obtain committee appointments.)

After the tension on the floor settled, McCarthy’s allies initially called for an adjournment until Monday but then changed their minds and moved for a 15th vote. McCarthy’s camp convinced six of his GOP critics to vote present, lowering the threshold he needed to win a majority. Minutes later, McCarthy won 216 votes of the 428 cast. 

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries hands the gavel to newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy early Saturday. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries hands the gavel to newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy early Saturday. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

What McCarthy promised Freedom Caucus members remains to a large extent unknown by rank-and-file members. A rules package released Friday includes one concession—a one-member threshold to begin proceedings for a new speaker of the House—but the other concessions aren’t included in the rules package.  (For more details, click here.)

By the time he was sworn in early Saturday, McCarthy was buoyant.

“That was easy, huh?” He quipped. Then he looked to Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries: “I’ve gotta warn you, two years ago, I got a hundred percent of the vote from my conference.”

Since ending his 2015 bid for the speakership, McCarthy’s coalition has included 2020 election-denying Reps. Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene. He has also cozied up to former President Donald Trump, even in the days after the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. In an ironic twist, he won the speakership just hours after the two-year anniversary of the attack. He initially condemned Trump as partly culpable for the violence of the day but later backtracked and days later flew to Mar-a-Lago in Florida to make amends in person.

During a wide-ranging speech early Saturday, McCarthy recommitted to House investigations of the Biden administration.

“We will hold the Swamp accountable, from the withdrawal of Afghanistan, to the origin of COVID, to the weaponization of the FBI,” he said. “Let me be very clear. We will use the power of the purse and the power of the subpoena to get the job done.” All despite not honoring subpoenas of the House committee investigating the January 6 Capitol attack.

House members were sworn in after McCarthy’s speech, but the 118th Congress still must consider and vote on the House rules package on Monday. That may test what has already shown itself to be a deeply divided Republican conference.

“I am a NO on the house rules package,” Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Texas Republican with a reputation as a moderate, tweeted on Friday. “Welcome to the 118th Congress.”

But for the weekend, all of that would wait. As many lawmakers left Capitol Hill early Saturday, aides wheeled a cart of champagne bottles toward the speaker’s office.

Just minutes earlier, above the entrance to an office that McCarthy had been occupying all week, a worker mounted a ladder to hang a name plate. It read: “Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy.”

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.