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Drama, anger and concession: Kevin McCarthy’s grueling path to House Speaker portends battles ahead

Sweeping reforms forced by 20 GOP rebels will significantly change how Washington operates, and taxpayer money is spent

Published: January 7, 2023 1:39am

Updated: January 7, 2023 1:51am

Across four long and at times humiliating days, Rep. Kevin McCarthy clawed his way through 15 ballots and hours of back-room dealing to secure a House Speakership he has coveted since 2015, slowly eroding the opposition of 20 renegade Republicans intent on forcing change to the way Washington spends money.

The once-in-a-century drama inside the Capitol played out on national television, and at times resembled the more raucous British Parliament. Lawmakers traded barbs and insults, openly bargained for concessions and even had to be restrained before the final victorious vote to avoid fisticuffs between GOP Reps. Mike Rogers and Matt Gaetz.

Even a former president, Donald Trump, had to intervene with his own pressure. And still it took an extraordinary reversal by the final six holdout Republicans, who changed their votes of opposition to “present” early Saturday to lower the threshold of victory so McCarthy could squeak out a win by a 216-212 margin.

Believe it or not, the surreal struggle to win the gavel may prove to be one of the easier missions the affable California Republican will face in the 118th Congress.

“That was easy, huh?,” McCarthy quipped in the wee hours of the morning Saturday after securing the victory and accepting the speakership. “I never thought we’d get up here.”

His humor, nonetheless, pointed a compass at the arduous path that lies ahead.

The Speakership race exposed a long-simmering divide between establishment Republicans with a penchant for conceding to last-minute spending laws that have bloated the national debt from $6 trillion to $32 trillion over the last two decades and the more restless, rebellious members of the House Freedom Caucus forged in the fires of the Tea Party and MAGA movements and their take-no-hostages tactics.

The 20 Republicans who held out for more than a dozen votes to deprive McCarthy of the gavel forced sweeping concessions in the rules package that govern how Congress operates and votes. Those concessions substantially shifted the power to decide what issues will be voted upon and what will be spent from tax dollars to House majority leadership – where it has resided for more than two decades – to rank-and-file members.

The new rules resemble those that House Speaker Newt Gingrich used to negotiate the first balanced budget in decades between a Republican-led Congress and the Clinton White House in the 1990s, something the renegade Republicans pressed for in negotiations. 

But with a House in which the parties are divided by just a few seats, the new rules will not only empower rank-and-file Republicans to demand more of their leaders, it will also give Democrats unprecedented power to gum up the House agenda from their minority position.

McCarthy will face two rapid fire challenges in his first few months: he must still get the rules package passed that he negotiated with the holdout lawmakers. And then in a few short months, he’ll be pressured to block an effort to increase America’s debt limit.

That means that McCarthy, a son of Bakersfield and a son of a firefighter, will have plenty of political fires to extinguish himself in the new reality he created in order to win the job.

Whatever that history holds, McCarthy began his Speakership with a fiery speech chock full of promises, which included that the chamber’s first vote will be on legislation to revoke the 87,000 new IRS agents.

He promised to cut spending, confront bureaucrats who want to waste tax dollars, reverse the loss of jobs and supply chain to China and vigorously investigate the weaponization of federal law enforcement.

“Let me be clear, we will use the power of the purse and the power of the subpoena to get the job done,” he said to cheers from his caucus.

He also vowed to re-open the Capitol to all Americans after Democrats had closed it to the public in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Jan. 6 riot.

In his acceptance speech, he implored visitors who will get to return to the Capitol rotunda to stop and pause at the statues of Civil War heroes, remembering the sacrifices they made to save the union in an earlier era of national strife.

“For America to do it then, we can it do it now,” he said.

And as a reminder of the battle he persevered to win this week, McCarthy declared: “I never give up.”

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