Kevin McCarthy secures Speakership after historic floor battle

He got the gavel.

Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) became the 55th Speaker of the House in the midnight hour on Saturday, ending a historic four-day, 15-ballot stalemate caused by a group of 20 hard-line conservative members — and fulfilling the California Republican’s longtime goal.

The final vote, on the 15th ballot, was 216 for McCarthy, 212 for House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and six present votes. With the present votes, he needed 215 votes to win.

McCarthy’s securing of the Speakership came after a dramatic scene on the House floor on the 14th ballot, with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) casting the deciding vote that put McCarthy just one vote shy of the gavel. 

Members huddled around Gaetz in intense discussion after the vote. At one point, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) went up to the group in anger, and Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) physically pulled Rogers back.

Republicans were about to adjourn until Monday — until Gaetz approached McCarthy, who asked for one more vote. On that ballot, all remaining holdouts flipped to vote present so he would win.

It is a major victory for McCarthy. There were points when many outside observers — and even privately some of his House GOP supporters — did not think he was going to be able to pull it off.

He proved them wrong.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a longtime friend of McCarthy’s, said in one of the final nominating speeches that he had “a front-row seat as he’s grown as a leader — and especially this week as he’s grown as a leader.” 

“He’s relentless. The man does not quit,” McHenry said of McCarthy. 

Before becoming Speaker, though, McCarthy had to listen.

As far back as July, hard-liners in the conservative House Freedom Caucus had started making demands to change House rules to weaken the power of leadership, increase the number of right-flank members in key positions, stay out of open Republican primaries and take a more aggressive stance toward the Biden administration, Democrats and the Senate.

Midterm elections proved disappointing for Republicans, handing them a far slimmer majority than McCarthy had long predicted. That gave hard-liners leverage. Five key detractors signaled early on that they would not vote for McCarthy, while several others withheld support as they pushed for rules changes and commitments. For a few of those holdouts, the opposition appeared to be personal.

Compromises offered over New Year’s weekend did not appease them, and posturing from McCarthy supporters to persist through ballot after ballot did not sway them.

The Speaker race looked to be heading for a repeat of history. Objections from members of the House Freedom Caucus had forced McCarthy to bow out of his first Speakership bid in 2015, when he ran to replace a resigning Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

McCarthy was not going to let that happen again. He vowed to never bow out of the race, steadfast even after days of multiple failed ballots.

The GOP leader and his allies — including McHenry, Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) and House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) — worked furiously to reach an agreement with the detractors as McCarthy failed the ninth, 10th and 11th ballots on the floor. Negotiations with holdouts such as House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) lasted late into the night on Thursday.

He gave them what they wanted — or most of it, at least.

Concessions include lowering the threshold for forcing a vote on ousting the Speaker to just one member, creating a select subcommittee on the “weaponization of the federal government” and agreeing to hold a vote on term limits. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC aligned with McCarthy, also agreed not to spend money in open-seat primaries in safe Republican districts.

When the House returned at noon Friday, McCarthy showcased his momentum, flipping a total of 14 of the detractors to support him on the 12th and 13th ballots.

Reps. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and first-term Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Texas), who were absent earlier in the day, rushed back to Washington for the final ballot to help McCarthy get over the finish line. Buck had been gone due to a medical procedure, and Hunt had traveled back to Texas to be with his premature newborn son and his wife, who suffered non-life-threatening complications that put her in the hospital.

The drawn-out Speakership fight makes history as the fifth-longest by number of ballots and the longest since before the Civil War. It is the first time that the Speaker vote went to multiple ballots since 1923.

“I think over the last several months, and over the last several years, [McCarthy] has shown how he’s going to [manage the conference],” said Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), a McCarthy supporter. “He brings people together. He is able to unite people you wouldn’t think would be united.”

But McCarthy will likely have more challenges ahead as he manages a wide range of ideologies with weakened power.

Ahead of the final Speaker vote, Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas), a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said he would vote against the House rules package. His stance points to potential dysfunction in Congress even after it elects a Speaker.

“I am a NO on the house rules package. Welcome to the 118th Congress,” he tweeted Friday evening.

Other Republicans were quietly growing frustrated with McCarthy bending so much to the will of his detractors rather than to the swing-district members who handed him the majority, multiple sources said.

The date on which he secured the gavel marked two years since another pivotal moment for McCarthy: the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

That day, McCarthy yelled at former President Trump on the phone as rioters breached the building. Later that night, he voted against certifying election results from Pennsylvania. In the aftermath, he said Trump bore responsibility for the attack. Then he helped to rehabilitate Trump’s stature in the GOP by meeting with him at Mar-a-Lago before the end of the month.

In McCarthy Speakership bid, Trump endorsed the GOP leader and called on the holdouts to lobby for him.

A massive fundraiser and savvy campaign tactician, McCarthy has long shown a willingness to bend to the political winds. In his memoir, Boehner recalled McCarthy — as the House majority whip in 2013 — voting with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) against a “fiscal cliff” tax deal that he had whipped to ensure it would pass. He could see the growing anti-government Tea Party sentiment in his party.

As Minority Leader, McCarthy has elevated and empowered members of the right flank who helped push Boehner to resign the Speakership. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who once ran against McCarthy to lead House Republicans, is set to chair the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who previously cast doubt on whether McCarthy could become Speaker, became one of his fiercest supporters in his battle for the gavel.

In October, McCarthy told Punchbowl News that if he did not win the Speakership, it was “not God’s plan for me to be speaker.”

McCarthy may have gotten an answer to his prayers — just not in the way he likely envisioned.