The Republican leader’s sheer willingness to endure vote after vote against him — even as he offered a slew of concessions — appeared to be on the brink of paying off.
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Representative Kevin McCarthy of California has endured more than a dozen votes denying him the speakership, but brought some holdouts into his camp on Friday.
WASHINGTON — For days as hard-right lawmakers voted again and again to block him from becoming speaker, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California sat on the House floor with a grin plastered to his face.
As his emissaries decamped from the chamber to haggle over changes in how the House functions with the faction of conservative rebels thwarting his election, Mr. McCarthy remained in his seat and ruefully chuckled, even as his detractors rose and predicted that he would never ascend to the top post and would be better off withdrawing from the race.
And talking with reporters, he gamely brushed off the historic and humiliating nature of his election, now the most protracted such contest since 1859, with an upbeat platitude.
“If this takes a little longer, and it doesn’t meet your deadline, that’s OK,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Because it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
What has become perhaps the most critical week of Mr. McCarthy’s political career has also reaffirmed a portrait of him well known by both his allies and detractors: that of an affable class president type who is all carrots and no sticks, and is more adept at backslapping and political strategizing than policymaking or legislative maneuvering.
As evening set in on Friday, it appeared that Mr. McCarthy’s malleability might end up paying off for him — at least for now.
Mr. McCarthy flipped 15 defectors on Friday, leaving just a handful, a victory that brought him significantly closer to winning the speakership. It came after he offered a series of sweeping concessions that would substantially weaken his authority as speaker and make for an unwieldy environment in the House, where the slim Republican majority and a hard-right faction with an appetite for disarray had already promised to make it difficult to govern.
F.A.Q.: The Speakership Deadlock in the House
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A historic impasse. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California is fighting to become House speaker, but a group of hard-right Republicans is blocking his bid and paralyzing the start of the new Congress. Here’s what to know:
Why is there a standoff? With Republicans holding a narrow margin in the House — 222 seats to Democrats’ 212 — Mr. McCarthy needs support from his party’s right wing to become speaker. But some far-right lawmakers have refused to back him, preventing Mr. McCarthy from getting to 218 votes.
Who are the detractors? The 20 House Republicans who are voting against Mr. McCarthy include some of the chamber’s most hard-right lawmakers. Most denied the results of the 2020 presidential election, and almost all are members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus.
What do they want? The right-wing rebellion against Mr. McCarthy is rooted not just in personal animosity, but also an ideological drive. The holdouts want to drastically limit the size, scope and reach of the federal government, and overhaul the way Congress works to make it easier to do so.
What can McCarthy do? Mr. McCarthy has made several concessions to try to win over the hard-liners, embracing measures that would weaken the speakership and that he had previously refused to support. But so far the concessions have not been enough to corral the votes he needs.
Is there an alternative to McCarthy? A big factor in Mr. McCarthy’s favor is that no viable candidate has emerged to challenge him, but Republicans could coalesce around someone else. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 Republican in the House, is seen by many as the most obvious backup.
How does this end? House precedent dictates that members continue to take successive votes until someone secures the majority to prevail. Until a speaker is chosen, the House is essentially a useless entity. It cannot pass laws or even swear in its members.
“Sticks don’t work in this town,” said Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, a McCarthy ally. “I hear that maybe they work on the other side of the aisle. They certainly don’t work for Republicans. You’re just not going to threaten and break people into doing the right thing, particularly not with a narrow majority.”
Yet that style has appeared uniquely ill-suited to the challenge Mr. McCarthy faces of corralling a restive group of ideologically driven House Republicans that is obsessed with legislative details and skilled at procedural disruption.
It is in part that disconnect that has created the conditions for Mr. McCarthy’s historic floor fight for the speakership, further emboldening a group of defectors who neither fear him nor respect him, and who have been eager to extract concessions from a lawmaker who had made it clear he would stop at nothing to win the job. One of their ringleaders, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, said on Tuesday that lawmakers should not give the post to a somebody willing to sell “shares of himself to get” it.
“You have this moment in time where McCarthy wants it so badly and has just been raked over the coals for an awesome four days,” exulted Russ Vought, the president of the right-wing Center for Renewing America, as he listed the concessions the Republican leader had offered.
Carrots may yet succeed in winning Mr. McCarthy the speaker’s gavel. But his willingness to compromise has also guaranteed that it would become almost impossible for him to control the rebels in his ranks and ensure that the House can perform its most basic duties in the coming two years, such as funding the government, including the military, or avoiding a catastrophic federal debt default.
“He will have to live the entirety of his speakership in a straitjacket constructed by the rules that we’re working on now,” Mr. Gaetz said.
Still, both admirers and detractors said Mr. McCarthy’s sheer willingness to sit on the House floor weathering vote after humiliating vote against him — even as he offered a slew of concessions with no clear sense of whether the right-wing defectors would ever cave — was critical to his turnaround. Under pressure to step aside when there appeared to be no chance that he could clinch the speaker’s gavel, he hung on anyway.
It also helped Mr. McCarthy’s cause that no viable challenger, like Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, his whip, or Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, ever stepped forward to offer themselves as a consensus candidate who could end the deadlock.
Electing a New Speaker of the House
A far-right revolt against Representative Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become speaker has triggered a long stretch of unsuccessful votes and left Congress in a deadlock.
- Scene on the Capitol: Near collisions abound in Washington as House members make history in failing to elect a speaker. Reporters are equally restless.
- Conservative Media: Some commentators have implored Republicans to resolve the infighting that has paralyzed the House. Others have cheered on the far-right rebellion.
- Trump Is Defied: Former President Donald J. Trump tried to break the logjam by backing Mr. McCarthy. His lack of success underscored the limits of his political power.
- A Eerily Similar Showdown: The parallels between a drawn-out clash for speaker in 1923 and the current one suggest that not much has changed in Congress over a century.
A longtime politician born and raised in one of the few remaining conservative pockets of California, the farming and oil city of Bakersfield, Mr. McCarthy cut his teeth in the California State Assembly as the minority leader, where he was known as a people-pleasing deal-cutter who doled out iPods as gifts to his colleagues and compiled binders of information to better remember their birthdays and wedding anniversaries.
That brand of bonhomie extended to the Tea Party era, when Mr. McCarthy and his fellow self-styled “Young Guns” Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Eric Cantor of Virginia helped recruit a phalanx of populist-inspired candidates who helped sweep their party into the House majority, and Mr. McCarthy into leadership.
Mr. McCarthy watched as the hard-right flank of that majority ran John A. Boehner of Ohio from his speakership in 2015 and blocked his own first attempt at securing the job, after 40 of its members announced that they would not support him, questioning his conservative credentials.
They also were unhappy that he had suggested in an interview on Fox News that the House committee investigating the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, had the political aim of damaging Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The California Republican quickly allied himself with former President Donald J. Trump, endorsing him as the party’s nominee in 2016 even as Mr. Ryan was loath to do so, eventually cultivating such a close relationship that Mr. Trump referred to him as “My Kevin.” He famously presented Mr. Trump with a curated package of only the former president’s favorite flavors of Starburst candies.
The relationship fissured after Jan. 6, 2021, when pro-Trump rioters attacked the Capitol stoked by lies of a stolen election, and Mr. McCarthy delivered a speech on the House floor condemning Mr. Trump’s role.
“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” he said. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump.”
But the speech infuriated Mr. Trump, and Mr. McCarthy quickly worked to get back in the former president’s good graces, traveling to his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, three weeks later to meet with him.
Almost exactly two years later, Mr. Trump was helping whip votes for Mr. McCarthy this week, telling Republicans on Truth Social, his social media site, that “Kevin McCarthy will do a good job, and maybe even a GREAT JOB — JUST WATCH!”