Kevin McCarthy elected Republican U.S. House speaker, but at a cost
Updated 17:14, 07-Jan-2023

Republican Kevin McCarthy was elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives early on Saturday, after making extensive concessions to a group of right-wing hardliners that raised questions about the party's ability to govern.

The 57-year-old Californian suffered one final humiliation when Representative Matt Gaetz withheld his vote on the 14th ballot as midnight approached, prompting a scuffle in which fellow Republican Mike Rogers had to be physically pulled away.

This week's 14 failed votes marked the highest number of ballots for the speakership since 1859, in the turbulent years before the Civil war. Electing a speaker is normally an easy, joyous task for a party that has just won majority control. But not this time: About 200 Republicans were stymied by 20 far-right colleagues who said McCarthy was not conservative enough.

The deepest congressional dysfunction in over 160 years

His victory in the 15th ballot brought an end to the deepest congressional dysfunction in over 160 years. But it sharply illustrated the difficulties that he will face in leading a narrow and deeply polarized majority.

McCarthy won at last on a margin of 216-212. As he took the gavel for the first time, he represented the end of President Joe Biden's Democrats' hold on both chambers of Congress.

"Our system is built on checks and balances. It's time for us to be a check and provide some balance to the president's policies," McCarthy said in his inaugural speech, which laid out a wide range of priorities from cutting spending to immigration, to fighting culture war battles.

He secured the gavel only after agreeing to a demand by hardliners that any lawmaker be able call for his removal at any time. That will sharply cut the power he will hold when trying to pass legislation on critical issues including funding the government, addressing the nation's looming debt ceiling and other crises that may arise.

Republicans' weaker-than-expected performance in November's midterm elections left them with a narrow 222-212 majority, which has given outsized power to the right-wing hardliners who have opposed McCarthy's leadership.

Those concessions, including sharp spending cuts and other curbs on McCarthy's leadership, could point to further turbulence in the months ahead, especially when Congress will need to sign off on a further increase of the United States' $31.4 trillion borrowing authority.

Over the past decade, Republicans have repeatedly shut down much of the government and pushed the world's largest borrower to the brink of default in efforts to extract steep spending cuts, usually without success.

Several of the hardliners have questioned McCarthy's willingness to engage in such brinksmanship when negotiating with President Joe Biden, whose Democrats control the Senate. They have raged in the past when Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell agreed to compromise deals.

The hardliners, also including Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry and Chip Roy of Texas, said concessions they extracted from McCarthy will make it easier to pursue such tactics this year, or force another vote on McCarthy's leadership if he does not live up to their expectations.

U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (C) speaks to reporters in Statuary Hall after being elected Speaker in the House at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, January 7, 2023. /CFP
U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (C) speaks to reporters in Statuary Hall after being elected Speaker in the House at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, January 7, 2023. /CFP

U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (C) speaks to reporters in Statuary Hall after being elected Speaker in the House at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, January 7, 2023. /CFP

McCarthy's concessions may backfire

McCarthy's 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, had trouble leading a rebellious right flank. The result: government shutdowns, standoffs and Boehner's early retirement when conservatives threatened to oust him.

One of those Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, warned that the concessions McCarthy made to win the job may come back to haunt him.

"Kevin McCarthy's concessions to the extremists in his party make it far more likely that the MAGA Republican controlled House will cause a government shutdown or a default with devastating consequences to our country," Schumer said in a statement.

McCarthy now holds the authority to block Biden's legislative agenda, force votes for Republican priorities on the economy, energy and immigration and move forward with investigations of Biden, his administration and his family.

But McCarthy has agreed to concessions that mean he will hold considerably less power than his predecessor, Democrat Nancy Pelosi. That will make it hard for him to agree to deals with Democrats in a divided Washington.

Allowing a single member to call for a vote to remove the speaker will give hardliners extraordinary leverage.

The agreement would cap spending for the next fiscal year at last year's levels, amounting to a significant cut when inflation and population growth are taken into account.

That could meet resistance from more centrist Republicans or those who have pushed for greater military funding, particularly as the spending money to help Ukraine fend off a Russian assault.

Moderate Republican Brian Fitzpatrick said he was not worried that the House would effectively be run by hardliners.

"It's aspirational," he told reporters. "We still have our voting cards."

McCarthy's belated victory came the day after the two-year anniversary of a January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, when a violent mob stormed Congress in an attempt to overturn then-President Donald Trump's election loss.

(With input from Reuters and AP)

Search Trends