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Our Best Stuff From a Week of Speaker Votes
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Our Best Stuff From a Week of Speaker Votes

Kevin McCarthy gets the gavel, but at what cost?

Incoming Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy accepts the gavel from incoming Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries after McCarthy won the speakership on the 15th ballot on Saturday, January 7, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images.)

Hello and happy Saturday. Did you stay up late last night for all the excitement in the House of Representatives? I admit I might have dozed off for a few minutes when it looked like the House would adjourn, but luckily for you our intrepid Hill reporters had consumed enough caffeine to power through until Kevin McCarthy won the speakership of the House on the 15th vote in the wee hours this morning. 

On Monday, before the shenanigans kicked off, Chris Stirewalt explained that the reason there was so much drama around the speakership contest was that the stakes were so … low. It sounds counterintuitive but he was prescient. McCarthy won, eventually, but he was greatly weakened in the process.

The late-night vote was good for lawmakers who were eager to return to their families for the weekend, and for exhausted reporters who’d endured long days all week, but it puts weekend newsletter authors in a bit of a pickle. Had the week gone differently, I might have wanted to write to you about the surreal experience of having the week’s other big story—the Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin suffering cardiac arrest and nearly dying on the football field—playing out in my city and watching as two rival teams and their communities came together to support him and his family. Or maybe I’d have indulged in a status report on the latest hijinks from the Ohio bureau, which has always been a dog-friendly establishment but over the holidays acquired a cat who likes to hang out either in the ductwork or on my keyboard. 

As it was, though, the McCarthy story dominated all else. So I will eschew an introductory essay and just jump right in. Some of the work we did over the course of the week has been rendered obsolete by the dramatic conclusion, but plenty of what we wrote offers insight into the current state of the Republican Party and what we should expect during the coming session.

Thanks for reading, and have a lovely weekend.

If you weren’t up until the dust settled overnight, Harvest offers an excellent play-by-play on the final votes. She details how McCarthy unexpectedly came up short on the 14th vote, how there was a near-physical confrontation between GOP Reps. Mike Rogers and Matt Gaetz, and how McCarthy voters flipped suddenly from wanting an adjournment to plowing ahead with the 15th and final vote. She also previewed what’s next: a vote on the rules package that will govern the House for the term. “‘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.’” I’d say “buckle up,” but probably more accurate to say “keep your seatbelts fastened.”

McCarthy’s victory answered a few questions—If not McCarthy, who? Will this ever end?—but not all of them. One big one: What did it cost him? There were many reports on Thursday and Friday of concessions and deals, but the only clue we have right now is the revised rules package that will be voted on Monday. There were surely other concessions, but even lawmakers are in the dark. ““No one really knows,” Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a Florida Republican, told The Dispatch. .. “Whoever told you anything, it’s lying. Because we have not been informed officially what it is they negotiated.” Haley, Harvest, and Price lay out some possibilities, including a cap on defense spending at 2022 levels and other spending cuts. One thing to keep in mind? “The White House and Senate are both held by Democrats, who will fight attempts to cut government funding, both in appropriations bills and as part of any efforts to suspend or raise the nation’s borrowing cap,” they write. “For that reason, McCarthy’s deal doesn’t reflect how these debates may actually end, but it does paint a stark picture of how this Congress could unfold—with high-stakes showdowns, the threat of government shutdowns, and a looming historic debt default all in play.”

It was apparent all week that Kevin McCarthy would do just about anything for a Klondike bar, erm, the speaker’s gavel. On Friday morning, we published this piece by Harvest and Price with reporting that indicated he might be doing a little too much—to the point that he risked alienating allies. One concession in particular rankled his supporters: a promise to give members of the anti-McCarthy bloc plum committee assignments, in some cases allowing members to leapfrog GOP lawmakers with more seniority. “I’m not on board with the idea that you have to guarantee them X number of slots on the [Appropriations] committee or the Rules committee,” Rep. Mike Gallagher said. “I think that sets a bizarre precedent where every faction—whether it’s the moderates, or the whatever caucus—is going to demand, ‘Where are our seats?’” The concessions didn’t end up costing McCarthy any votes, but it was clear they were an issue: As our main article on the vote reported on the near altercation between Rep. Mike Rogers and Matt Gaetz,  “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.” 

Nick was on the McCarthy beat all week in Boiling Frogs, and all of his newsletters are worth reading. But this one really nailed the big picture. It’s hard for non-Trumpy Republicans to actively root for McCarthy—who sucked up to the former president so as to smoooth his path—and easy to enjoy watching him squirm. But when you look at just who was making McCarthy sweat it out—Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz and other “Never Kevins”—it’s not really cause for laughter. “If you’re not worried about the fact that America’s fiscal stability may end up in the hands of 20 or so uncompromising populist de facto independents who answer only to constituencies hardened by decades of right-wing media’s ‘suckers and fighters’ logic, you should be.”

For all the talk about it being 100 years since the speakership vote went past the first round and the hand-wringing about the GOP embarrassing itself, Jonah can’t get that worked up. He kicks off with a little Dr. Seuss, as one does, before taking issue with a statement “This is what democracy looks like,” that gets thrown around by the left whenever there are protests. That’s not what democracy looks like, he argues. What does? Orderly voting, for one. “You know what else democracy looks like? The hot mess on TV right now.” And so he’s not panicking about the events in the House. “The more I think about it, the more I like it. All day I’ve heard people say it’s ‘embarrassing.’ Yeah, sure, it’s embarrassing for Kevin McCarthy, but so what? His reading of Green Eggs and Ham was far more embarrassing. His toadying to Trump—after blaming him for a violent assault on the institution he wants to lead—was infinitely more embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for the GOP, sure. But such embarrassment is not simply warranted—it’s overdue. Some of the most important lessons in life are learned through embarrassment.”

There were a few other things we covered. Here’s the best of the rest:

  • Hamline College in Minnesota recently terminated an adjunct professor of art history who displayed paintings depicting the Prophet Mohammed—during an online class, after a discussion of the works and an invitation to students to turn off their cameras. So much for academic freedom, Keith E. Whittington writes.
  • Southwest canceled thousands of flights over the holidays, stranding passengers and even their own crews in airports across the country. Kevin explains why “air travel is an ugly, stupid, inconvenient business most of the time, three dashboard saints and one poultry crate short of the Guatemalan ‘chicken bus.’”
  • In Capitolism, Scott Lincicome looks at some pressing questions for 2023: Will we have a recession? Will there be a Great Unretiring? Will Washington get over its Big Tech hysteria? And more.
  • Harvest profiles retiring civil rights activist Bob Woodson. She details his long experience in the movement, including his clashes with other activists and his founding of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which works to “rejuvenate the black community in impoverished neighborhoods.”
  • And the pods: Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse is stepping down to become president of the University of Florida, and Steve welcomed him to The Dispatch Podcast for an exit interview. Is the border crisis a pandemic crisis? David and Sarah discuss on Advisory Opinions. The speakership had not been decided when Jonah recorded his latest Remnant, but you’ll enjoy his rants about the drama, and he also talks about a big story from The Daily Beast and the Damar Hamlin incident.

Rachael Larimore is managing editor of The Dispatch and is based in the Cincinnati area. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she served in similar roles at Slate, The Weekly Standard, and The Bulwark. She and her husband have three sons.