Science & Nature

Kevin McCarthy elected House speaker after rowdy, late-night vote

Kevin McCarthy elected House speaker after rowdy, late-night vote thumbnail

Republican Kevin McCarthy from California was elected House speaker on a historic, post-midnight 15th ballot early Saturday, overcoming holdouts from his own ranks and floor tensions that boiled over after a chaotic week that tested the new GOP majority’s ability to govern.

Republicans roared in celebration, then embraced their new speaker, chanting “USA! USA!”

With a speaker elected, the House finally was able to start swearing in newly-elected lawmakers, who had been waiting all week for the chamber to formally open and the 2023-24 session to begin.

After four days of grueling ballots, Mr. McCarthy flipped more than a dozen conservative holdouts to become supporters, including the chairman of the chamber’s Freedom Caucus, leaving him just a few shy of seizing the gavel for the new Congress.

As the House resumed for the late night session, Mr. McCarthy had been on the cusp of victory in the 14th round, but he fell one vote short.

He strode to the back of the chamber to confront Matt Gaetz of Florida, sitting with Lauren Boebert of Colorado and other holdouts. Fingers were pointed, words exchanged, and violence apparently just averted.

At one point, Republican Mike Rogers of Alabama started to charge toward Mr. Gaetz before another Republican, Richard Hudson of North Carolina, physically pulled him back.

“Stay civil!” someone shouted.

Order restored, the Republicans fell in line to give Mr. McCarthy the post he had fought so hard to gain.

The few Republican holdouts began voting present, dropping the tally he needed. It was the end of the bitter standoff that had shown the strengths and fragility of American democracy.

The tally was 216-212 with Democrats voting for leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and six Republican holdouts to Mr. McCarthy simply voting present.

The day’s stunning turn of events came after Mr. McCarthy agreed to many of the detractors’ demands – including the reinstatement of a longstanding House rule that would allow any single member to call a vote to oust him from office.

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Mr. McCarthy emerges as a weakened speaker, having given away some powers and constantly under the threat of being booted by his detractors. But he may also be emboldened as a survivor of one of the more brutal fights for the gavel in U.S. history. Not since the Civil War era has a speaker’s vote dragged through so many rounds of voting.

The showdown that has stymied the new Congress came against the backdrop of the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which shook the country when a mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters tried to stop Congress from certifying the Republican’s 2020 election defeat to Democrat Joe Biden.

At a Capitol event on Friday, some lawmakers, mostly Democrats, observed a moment of silence and praised officers who helped protect Congress on that day. And at the White House, President Biden handed out medals to officers and others who fought the attackers.

“America is a land of laws, not chaos,” he said.

At the afternoon speaker’s vote, a number of Republicans tiring of the spectacle temporarily walked out when one of Mr. McCarthy’s most ardent challengers railed against the GOP leader.

Contours of a deal with conservative holdouts who had been blocking Mr. McCarthy’s rise emerged after three dismal days and 11 failed votes in an intraparty standoff unseen in modern times.

One significant former holdout, Republican Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus who had been a leader of Mr. Trump’s efforts to challenge the 2020 election, tweeted after his switched vote for McCarthy: “We’re at a turning point.”

Another Republican holdout, Byron Donalds of Florida, who was repeatedly nominated as an alternative candidate for speaker, switched on Friday, too, voting for Mr. McCarthy.

Mr. Trump may have played a role in swaying the holdouts. Mr. Donalds said he had spoken to the former president who had been urging Republicans to wrap up their public dispute the day before.

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As Rep. Mike Garcia of California nominated Mr. McCarthy for Friday, he also thanked the U.S. Capitol Police who were given a standing ovation for protecting lawmakers and the legislative seat of democracy on Jan. 6.

But in nominating the Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat Jim Clyburn of South Carolina recalled the horror of that day and told his colleagues: “The eyes of the country are on us today.” 

Electing a speaker is normally an easy, joyous task for a party that has just won majority control. But this time, about 200 Republicans were stymied by 20 far-right colleagues who said Mr. McCarthy was not conservative enough.

The House adjourned until late in the night, giving time for last-minute negotiations and for two absent Republican colleagues to return to Washington.

Newly elected Wesley Hunt of Texas arrived to vote for McCarthy – to applause days after his wife had given birth – as did Ken Buck of Colorado.

The disorganized start to the new Congress pointed to difficulties ahead with Republicans now in control of the House, much the way that some past Republican speakers, including John Boehner of Ohio, had trouble leading a rebellious right flank. The result: government shutdowns, standoffs, and Mr. Boehner’s early retirement when conservatives threatened to oust him.

The agreement Mr. McCarthy presented to the holdouts from the Freedom Caucus and others centers around rules changes they have been seeking for months. Those changes would shrink the power of the speaker’s office and give rank-and-file lawmakers more influence in drafting and passing legislation.

At the core of the emerging deal is the reinstatement of a House rule that would allow a single lawmaker to make a motion to “vacate the chair,” essentially calling a vote to oust the speaker. Mr. McCarthy had resisted allowing a return to the longstanding rule that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, had done away with, because it had been held over the head of past Republican Speaker Boehner. But it appears Mr. McCarthy had no other choice.

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Other wins for the holdouts are more obscure and include provisions in the proposed deal to expand the number of seats available on the House Rules Committee, to mandate 72 hours for bills to be posted before votes, and to promise to try for a constitutional amendment that would impose federal limits on the number of terms a person could serve in the House and Senate.

What started as a political novelty, the first time since 1923 a nominee had not won the gavel on the first vote, devolved into a bitter Republican Party feud and deepening potential crisis.

Before Friday’s ballots, Democratic leader Jeffries had won the most votes on every ballot but also remained short of a majority. Mr. McCarthy ran second, gaining no ground.

The longest fight for the gavel started in late 1855 and dragged on for two months, with 133 ballots, during debates over slavery in the run-up to the Civil War. 

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Kevin Freking and video journalists Nathan Ellgren and Mike Pesoli contributed to this report.

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