Republican frontrunner Kevin McCarthy was named speaker of the US House of Representatives on Saturday when he finally put down a fierce rebellion within his party that had paralyzed the lower house of Congress for days.
McCarthy was always the favorite to lead the Republican-led House, but his victory in the early morning hours was nearly derailed by a right-wing revolt in his party that extended the race to a historic 15 rounds of voting.
The speaker wields great influence in Washington by presiding over House affairs and is second in line to the presidency, after the vice president.
McCarthy had hoped to clinch the deck in round 14 before midnight Friday, but suffered a stunning defeat amid jaw-dropping scenes of Republican infighting when he fell short by just one vote out of more than 400 cast.
When Matt Gaetz voted “present” to deny McCarthy the gavel, the disappointed Republican leader went over to speak face-to-face with the Florida legislator-elect.
Gaetz pointed a finger at McCarthy, who started to back away as Alabama’s Mike Rogers lunged at Gaetz and had to be restrained with an arm pinning him to his face.
Republicans, who hold a slim majority, had been embroiled in an internal war when McCarthy failed to win a majority in multiple ballots, with around 20 hardline conservatives blocking his path since Tuesday.
But the 57-year-old Californian was able to garner more than a dozen defector votes in two-afternoon rounds of voting Friday after offering significant concessions.
Emboldened, McCarthy predicted he would win in round 14, but suffered humiliation given the wall-to-wall coverage on US news channels before finally clinching his victory in round 15.
“It just reminds me of what my father always told me,” McCarthy had told reporters. It’s not how you start, it’s how you end. And now we have to finish for the American public.”
– Big concessions –
There were more rounds of voting in the contentious 2023 race than in any speaker election since the Civil War.
McCarthy had projected confidence all week, even as he was losing votes instead of growing the base of about 200 Republicans who have backed him all along.
His party’s takeover of Congress is expected to herald the end of cross-party cooperation, with the legislative process stalled and Republicans pledging an aggressive agenda of investigations into most aspects of the administration of President Joe Biden and his family.
Democrats and some of McCarthy’s own supporters are privately concerned that he has been offering his far-right critics sweeping political compromises that will make the House ungovernable.
There were reports, which AFP has not verified, that he had agreed to propose keeping spending at 2022 levels, including a cap on military funding that would have the same effect as a $75 billion cut.
That has raised alarm among defense hawks who are pushing for the US to project force amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and an emboldened Chinese stance on Taiwan.
No legislator, however senior, has the authority to set budgets, but the fact that the suggestion has been taken to heart underscores the Republican turn toward isolationism under the leadership of Donald Trump.
Other elected lawmakers complained that McCarthy was handing hardliners important committee seats and rule changes that would severely reduce the role of the speaker.
– Poisoned chalice? –
It is understood that renegade Republicans traded their votes in exchange for rule changes that allowed the president to be ousted in a vote called by a single member.
They are also asking for an outsized role in deciding which bills make it to the floor and how they are handled.
The length and precariousness of the speaker selection process has highlighted how difficult it will be for McCarthy to muster votes in the 118th Congress.
Democrats said the role would be a poisoned chalice, as the compromises McCarthy made would leave him the weakest orator in modern history.
“He has consistently moved to the right and capitulated every time to these extremist elements in the Republican Party,” Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin told MSNBC, referring to Republicans by their nickname, the “Big Old Party.”