Speaker debacle displays rift within GOP

Bakersfield representative Kevin McCarthy has to make many concessions with opposing Republicans to finally being elected House speaker on 15th vote


Photo courtesy of kevinmccarty.house.gov

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif), seen here shaking hands with veterans in 2019, was finally elected to his new position after 15 votes earlier this month. This marked the longest speaker election in more than 150 years.

For nearly five days this month, Congress stood at a standstill as the House of Representatives failed to elect a speaker. The situation was mired in disputes over political rules, the midterm elections, and growing rifts within the Republican Party. 

So let’s try and unpack what happened during this political crisis. 

In the November election the Republican Party won the House of Representatives, one of the two houses of Congress. The victory was considered unimpressive, as they underperformed many predictions and expectations. Republicans won 222 seats, a gain of only nine seats from the 2020 election. 

This underperformance can be attributed to unelectable and extreme Republican candidates. While extreme candidates did poorly, many more “normal” candidates like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who focused on issues such as inflation and crime, generally did well. 

This slim majority laid the groundwork for the House speaker election crisis, which began Jan. 3 when new members of the 118th US Congress were supposed to be sworn in to office. The House speaker is elected by a majority of representatives in the House, and the position is vital because it assigns committees and lays out the schedule for debate and voting.

Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy, who was the House minority leader since 2019, was projected to be the next speaker as it’s almost always the winning party House leader who runs and wins the race for speaker. This was further instilled by a Republican Conference vote to choose their candidate. McCarthy received 188 votes, while challenger Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona received only 31. 

But even after this Republican election, McCarthy’s candidacy was still publicly opposed by five Republican representatives who had qualms with how the House was run and McCarthy’s leadership. These representatives were from the House Freedom Caucus, a group of anti-establishment Republicans who were no strangers to vote against the Republican nominee in speaker elections. 

Many House Freedom Caucus members had previously opposed the speakership candidacy of previous Republican nominees, including Paul Ryan, but their numbers weren’t nearly enough to challenge them. But with this slim majority, the House Freedom Caucus had more power in controlling this month’s vote.

 Their reasons for obstructing the Republican nominee almost always included the claim that the Republican nominee wasn’t conservative enough to meet the goals of the party. The Freedom Caucus is generally anti-government spending, so they vote against raising the debt limit which puts political pressure on other branches to decrease spending.

Even with negotiations lasting through December and January, no deal was reached. It was projected that McCarthy could only lose four Republican votes to still gain a majority. But on Jan 3 19 Republicans defected and voted for other Congressmen, such as Biggs and Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. 

Since no one received enough votes, the House had to keep voting until someone reached a majority. By Jan 4, McCarthy had lost two more Republicans, totaling 21 defectors.

But by Jan 6, negotiations had gone quite well with a group of Republican defectors, and on the 12th ballot vote, 14 of the 21 defectors switched their vote to McCarthy, giving him a total of 213 votes. They switched their vote because McCarthy had agreed to many of their major proposals, including making it easier to oust the speaker, capping government spending, and holding key votes on conservative bills that covered topics ranging from the IRS to illegal immigration. 

The ousting speaker concession makes it where one member can ask to vacate the speaker and elect a new one. This makes the speaker very weak and overall hurts the stability of the Congress since the speaker would be beholden to a small group of congressmen. 

The government spending part is generally good for conservative priorities as it would finally address the county’s massive budget deficit and growing debt. But it’s not perfect as there are legitimate concerns about caps on defense spending, which would hinder America’s ability to combat enemies. The key votes on the IRS and illegal immigration also address issues that the Biden administration has been ignoring, such as the border crisis. 

But these new votes weren’t enough to elect McCarthy. In the late night hours of Jan 6, the 14th vote was held and two major defectors, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, decided to vote “present” instead of for a candidate. This means their vote was technically not counted as a vote, therefore lowering the number of votes needed to have a majority. The threshold was now 216, and the conclusion to the vote was a tie.

On the House floor, McCarthy normally kept a smile and a good public face even as he lost vote after vote, but this time he looked frustrated and tired, and he confronted the two “present” voters. After a stern talk with them, McCarthy walked away, but as he was leaving Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama seemed to have been restrained by another representative during an argument with Gaetz. 

Though later on Gaetz and Rogers made up, the incident was a very memorable one on the House floor. It also illustrated the anger toward the remaining Republican members who refused to support McCarthy. So many concessions were made and yet these members were still stubborn and gave Democrats a PR victory.

The tone seemed very gloomy for Republicans, and a motion to adjourn the House until Jan 9 was proposed by Republican members. But in a moment of triumph, McCarthy shouted at Republicans to change their votes on the motion so the House could stay in session. This was supposedly because Gaetz and others had convinced the remaining defectors to vote “present”, meaning the threshold was lowered and McCarthy could win. 

Republican members started chanting “one more vote!” in the chamber as everyone was getting ready for the 15th and final vote for speaker of the House. This vote consisted of no Republican defectors, only six Republican “present” votes. As Rep. Zinke of Montana cast the last vote in favor of McCarthy, Republican members broke into applause and cheering as McCarthy had just been elected speaker.

Though the process was drawn out and became the longest speaker election in more than 150 years – the 36th Congress took 44 votes over two months to elect a speaker – the compromises made between McCarthy and 14 Republican members was seen as a sign of unity, while the stubborn six were seen as obstructionists who only had their image and media presence in mind.