WASHINGTON: Republican Kevin McCarthy was elected speaker of the US House of Representatives early Saturday after making sweeping concessions to a group of right-wing hardliners who have raised questions about the party’s ability to govern.
The 57-year-old Californian suffered a final humiliation when Rep. Matt Gaetz withheld his vote on the 14th ballot as midnight approached, sparking a melee in which Republican Mike Rogers had to be physically removed.
McCarthy’s victory on the 15th ballot ended the deepest congressional dysfunction in over 160 years. But it vividly depicted the difficulties he will face leading a narrow and deeply polarized majority.
He eventually won by a margin of 216-212. He was able to be elected with the votes of less than half the members of the House only because six in his own party withheld their votes – not endorsing McCarthy as leader, but also not voting for another candidate.
As he took the gavel for the first time, McCarthy represented the end of President Joe Biden’s Democratic dominance of both houses of Congress.
“Our system is based on checks and balances. It’s time to check and provide some balance to the president’s policies,” McCarthy said in his inaugural address, which laid out a wide range of priorities, from spending cuts to immigration to fighting the culture war.
McCarthy secured the gavel only after agreeing to hardliners’ demand that any lawmaker can call for his removal at any time. That would sharply reduce the power he will have when trying to pass legislation on critical issues such as funding the government, dealing with 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 enormous power to right-wing hardliners who oppose McCarthy’s leadership.
Those concessions, including steep spending cuts and other restrictions on McCarthy’s leadership, could signal further turmoil in the coming months, especially when Congress will need to sign off on a further $31.4 trillion increase in the United States’ 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 bankruptcy in efforts to extract steep spending cuts, usually without success.
Several hardliners have questioned McCarthy’s willingness to engage in such aggression in negotiations with President Joe Biden, whose Democrats control the Senate. They have been angered in the past when Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell agreed to compromise on deals.
Hardliners, also including Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry and Chip Roy of Texas, said the concessions they won from McCarthy would make it easier to pursue such tactics this year — or force another McCarthy leadership vote if he doesn’t. meet their expectations.
“You have changes in the way we’re going to spend and allocate money that are going to be historic,” said Representative Scott Perry, the chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.
“We don’t want clean debt ceilings to be passed and just continue to pay the bill without some counter-effort to control spending when Democrats control the White House and control the Senate.”
One of those Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, warned that the concessions McCarthy made to win the seat could come back to haunt him.
“Kevin McCarthy’s concessions to extremists in his party make it far more likely that the House controlled by MAGA Republicans will trigger a government shutdown or bankruptcy with devastating consequences for our country,” Schumer said in a statement.
In sharp contrast to this week’s battles between House Republicans, Biden and McConnell appeared together in Kentucky on Wednesday to emphasize infrastructure investment.
McCarthy’s late victory came the day after the two-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, when a violent mob stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn then-President Donald Trump’s election defeat.
This week’s 14 failed ballots marked the highest number of ballots
McCarthy’s last bid for speaker, in 2015, collapsed in the face of right-wing opposition. The two previous Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, quit after clashing with right-wing colleagues.
McCarthy now has the power to block Biden’s legislative agenda, force votes on Republican priorities on the economy, energy and immigration, and launch investigations into Biden, his administration and his family.
But McCarthy has agreed to concessions that mean he will have far less power than his predecessor, Democrat Nancy Pelosi. That will make it difficult for him to agree deals with Democrats in a divided Washington.
Allowing a single member to call for a vote to remove the speaker will give hardliners extremely powerful leverage.
The deal will limit spending for the next financial year to last year’s levels – which amounts 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 more military funding, particularly as the United States spends money to help Ukraine fend off a Russian attack.
Moderate Republican Brian Fitzpatrick said he’s not worried that the House will essentially be run by hardliners.
“It’s ambitious,” he told reporters. “We still have our voting cards.”