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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Inui

McCarthy Wins The Speaker Election, But At What Cost?

After four long days of voting, Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy finally wins his bid for the House speakership (Voice of America, Wikimedia Commons).

On January 6, exactly two years after protestors stormed Capitol Hill and breached the halls of Congress, Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy lost his fourteenth ballot for the House speakership. While eventually overcoming the opposition and ascending to office early the next day, the struggle McCarthy faced in his election speaks to the increasing power of a small group of far-right lawmakers in the House and the long road before McCarthy in trying to keep his party together.

McCarthy’s Struggle for the Speakership

On January 3, 435 members-elect of the House of Representatives assembled on the House floor to elect the speaker of the House. Second in the Presidential line of succession and holding overarching powers over committee assignments and floor debates, the Speaker is one of the most powerful positions in government. However, 12 ballots and several days later, the majority party’s pick for the position, California Republican Kevin McCarthy, had still failed to reach the 218 votes needed to ascend to the office. Vote after vote, a group of far-right Republicans refused to elect McCarthy, nominating everyone from Republican Representative Jim Jordan to former president Donald Trump. “From the outside, it looks like chaos,” commented Representative Ryan Zinke, a Republic from Montana, “from the inside, it is.”

By noon of January 6, McCarthy had won over 15 of the 21 Republicans who had initially defected. Later that day, two of McCarthy’s most vocal critics, Representatives Lauren Boeboert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida, also voted present, but McCarthy still ended up short, so the House moved to adjourn for the weekend. However, as the vote was being tallied, Republicans unexpectedly switched to oppose adjournment, and the House proceeded to a fifteenth speaker vote. This time, four more Republican holdouts switched their votes to present, lowering the majority threshold required for McCarthy to win.

So, just after midnight on January 7, McCarthy finally obtained the position that had eluded him for four long days. In the end, McCarthy won 216 votes, Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries won 212, and six Republicans voted present.

The Concessions He Made

To appease the almost two dozen Congressmen who refused to vote for him, McCarthy made several concessions concerning the rules package (the law that dictates the rules of the House for the next two years) as well as his powers as speaker. Among the concessions made were the following:

  • Lowering the threshold required to motion for a vote to vacate the speaker’s chair from half of either party to just one Representative.

  • Requiring that all efforts to raise the debt ceiling be paired with spending cuts, in effect preventing the government from borrowing money.

  • Giving Representatives seventy-two hours to review bills before they come to the floor for a vote.

  • Expanding the ability of Representatives to offer amendments on the House floor.

  • Preventing McCarthy’s SuperPAC from spending money in Republican primaries against the Representatives that voted against him.

  • Restoring the Holman Rule, which allows Congress to reduce the salaries of certain government officials.

  • Creating a select committee to investigate the “weaponization” of the federal government.

  • Adding several members of the far-right Freedom Caucus to the Rules Committee, which controls what bills are brought to the floor and how they are debated.

Several of these concessions were highly controversial among Democrats and some moderate Republicans. “What we’re seeing is the incredibly shrinking speakership, and that’s most unfortunate for Congress,” said former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. However, several far-right House members have hailed the concessions as signs of a strengthening democracy. “I think the House is in a lot better place with some of the work that’s been done to democratize power out of the speakership, and that’s our goal,” said Representative Gaetz.

While the Rules package was ultimately passed on January 9 with only one Republican voting against it, many Representatives were still troubled by the possible concessions secured behind closed doors that were not included in the package’s text. “What I’m concerned about is not just what’s written down here,” Representative Jim McGovern, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, said as he gestured at the package, “I’m concerned by the back-room deals that Speaker McCarthy made with the Freedom Caucus in exchange for their votes.” Even Nancy Mace, a Republican representing a swing district in South Carolina, said in a letter to her constituents that she “can’t think of anything more ‘swampy’ than a member of Congress who tells the American people they’re holding up the speaker vote because they’re ‘fighting’ the ‘swamp’ only to broker some back-room deal, hidden away from the American people.”

The Future of the Lower House

While many have lauded the historic speaker vote (the longest since 1855) as a sign of democracy in action, many others are worried about what this means for Congress moving forward. “If Republicans are unable to muster the votes for a speaker, it will make very clear from the outset they cannot be counted on to fulfill the body’s basic responsibilities,” said Brendan Buck, a political analyst who worked for two previous House speakers. Many others fear that McCarthy’s concessions gave too much power to far-right lawmakers. “At the end of the day, you can’t let … the insurgency caucus take hold and dictate,” said Representative Tony Gonzales, a moderate Republican from Texas.

The most profound test of McCarthy’s power and the functionality of the House will come later this year when the government has to finance spending Congress committed in late December. This would require Congress to raise the debt ceiling (the limit on how much the government can borrow), which McCarthy’s concession mandate must be tied to spending cuts. If he chooses to fund the government by cutting spending elsewhere, money will likely be taken from Social Security and Medicare, compromising retired people’s livelihoods. However, if McCarthy fails to raise the debt ceiling and allows the government to default on its debts, the globe would be plunged into a major financial crisis.

Still, McCarthy has remained optimistic. “This is the great part,” he told reporters after he won the speakership, “because it took this long, now we learned how to govern. So now we’ll be able to get the job done.”



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