Well, last week was certainly historic. It was also extraordinarily chaotic, but let’s stick with the history for the moment.
For the fifteenth time in American history, the election of a Speaker of the House required more than one round of voting. The most recent such occurrence was exactly a century ago in 1923, although it was far from the worst such impasse, which took 133 ballots over 62 days (December 3, 1855 to February 2, 1856) in the run-up to the Civil War.
The act of electing a House Speaker is one of those few actions specified in the U.S. Constitution, as Article One, Section Two, Clause Five of the U.S. Constitution states: “The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers.”
To put that more plainly, the new House has to elect a Speaker before they can do anything else. Swearing in the members, approving the rules and passing actual legislation can only commence once a Speaker is chosen.
Coming into this week, this House consisted of 434 members, 222 Republicans and 212 Democrats (one seat is open because Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin died on November 28th).
So McCarthy needed 218 votes to become Speaker and could only afford 4 defections among his caucus. The issue for him was that 5 Republican Congressmen already made clear beforehand that they were united in opposition to McCarthy.
The California Representative already snatched defeat from the jaws of victory once before in October 2015. McCarthy was next in line following John Boehner’s surprise resignation, but proved unable to secure a majority, with Paul Ryan getting elected instead.
Nevertheless, McCarthy entered this battle with a key advantage; the support of former President Donald Trump. Trump and McCarthy had a close relationship during the former’s term, with Trump even reportedly calling his House leader “My Kevin”. While this partnership frayed in the immediate aftermath of the January 6th insurrection, a few weeks later McCarthy made a pivotal trip to Mar-A-Lago to repair the relationship between Trump and the GOP establishment.
To chronicle McCarthy’s long and winding road to the Speakership, I compiled this running diary of the five-day, fifteen ballot process that eventually resulted in the House’s 55th Speaker.
In Tuesday morning’s Republican caucus meeting, McCarthy verbally confronted his opponents, insisting that he deserved the gavel by proclaiming “I’ve earned this job!” Reporters immediately began to question whether such bombast might backfire.
At noon, all 434 members emerged onto the House floor to kick off this process. Throughout the ordeal C-SPAN would provide the public with tremendous views of the chamber, as since there was no Speaker the network resumed control over their own cameras.
Right off the bat, the initial battle lines were drawn on the first ballot when all 212 Democrats stood behind Hakeem Jeffries and 203 Republicans stuck with Kevin McCarthy. Republican Andy Biggs also had his name thrown into nomination, winning support from himself and nine others: Dan Bishop, Andrew Clyde, Elijah Crane, Matt Gaetz, Bob Good, Paul Gosar, Ralph Norman, Scott Perry and Matthew Rosendale.
Additionally, six other GOP Reps. voted for Jim Jordan, among them Lauren Boebert, Michael Cloud, Anna Luna, Mary Miller, Andrew Ogles and Keith Self. Three separate members went off on their own with Josh Breechen voting for Jim Banks, Chip Roy voting for Byron Donalds and Andy Harris supporting former Rep. Lee Zeldin.
All told, the 19 Republican defections were considerably more than anticipated beforehand, suggesting McCarthy’s morning tirade had alienated even more members. Regardless, the Republican leader was already in a major bind as the second ballot began.
For the first time in exactly 100 years, the House was forced to move to a second ballot in their Speaker election. Unlike the first ballot, the Republican rebels fully united behind Jim Jordan, despite the fact that Jordan literally nominated McCarthy himself. With all 19 insurgent Republicans supporting Jordan on this ballot, Jeffries and McCarthy were once again left at 212 and 203 votes respectively.
With still no resolution, the House moved on to its third vote of the day as 433 of the 434 members cast the exact same vote as they did on the second ballot. The sole exception being Byron Donalds, who was the first McCarthy supporter to shift to another Republican (in this case Jordan).
With McCarthy’s support beginning to erode, Republicans called to adjourn the House until noon the next day, a proposal that was carried by voice vote. Despite indications that some Democrats thought it would be better to continue on, the new leadership team decided to allow the House to convene.
On the second day of voting, the group of 20 all solidified behind Donalds as their alternative. Then at the end of this roll call we got our first surprise, when McCarthy supporter Victoria Spartz voted present. The first new crack in the GOP leader’s coalition, this shift could’ve portended that the dam would soon burst on McCarthy.
After the vote count was announced, a substantial gathering of Congressmen assembled in the middle of the House floor, further exciting reporters eager to spot a potentially pivotal conversation.
That impromptu congregation and Spartz’s last-minute switch had everyone watching to see how many additional members would break from McCarthy on the subsequent fifth ballot. In fact, following some exasperated comments from Ken Buck, it seemed that he might soon add his own voice to the anti-McCarthy effort and spark a stampede away from the Republican leader.
Yet neither Buck nor anyone else ultimately switched their vote, leaving the vote count unchanged from the previous ballot.
As a result, it wasn’t a complete surprise when there were no shifts on the next ballot either, the third straight identical vote of the day. The House then adjourned for dinner on a voice vote, and it wasn’t until they returned that the chamber finally descended into chaos.
The GOP leadership was seeking to adjourn for the night, while Democrats were hoping to prolong the Republicans’ humiliation. With a handful of GOP insurgents voting with the Democrats to stay in session, the nay votes were in the lead when the fifteen-minute vote period expired.
While this is a common occurrence, and votes are typically held open past the expiration of the clock, the Democratic clerks gaveled down before every member had voted. Given the customary last chance to cast or change their vote, a number of Reps sprinted into the well of the House.
Ultimately, one of the Republican rebels, Paul Gosar, agreed to switch his vote and the motion to adjourn passed 216 to 214 – Republicans Biggs, Boebert, Crane and Gaetz joining 210 Democrats in opposition. All the while, two Republicans (Barry Moore and Michael Simpson) and two Democrats (Tony Cardenas and Adriano Espaillat) managed to miss the roll call.
By this point, according to Tara Palmeri of Puck, GOP Whip Steve Scalise was reaching out to McCarthy ally Jason Smith to make the case that McCarthy couldn’t win and the caucus should now turn to Scalise.
In an attempt to break through the stalemate, and/or head-off any insurgency from Scalise, McCarthy offered a slew of new concessions to the holdouts. The main points of his proposal were as follows:
- The threshold to file a ‘motion to vacate’ would be lowered to one, so just a single member could force another vote for Speaker at any time
- Two members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus would be granted seats on the powerful House Rules Committee
- A vote on a constitutional amendment for Congressional term limits would be called
- All 12 annual appropriations bills would be voted on separately, instead of being bundled together in an omnibus
- McCarthy’s PAC pledged to the Club for Growth that it would stay out of primaries in safe GOP House seats
McCarthy wasn’t the only one taking heat either, as commentators increasingly began to note that Donald Trump’s inability to convince the caucus to rally around the Californian was a sign of weakness for the former President.
As the third day of the impasse dawned, Trump tried to remedy this situation with an even stronger message of support for McCarthy. On top of that Elon Musk, who’s been close to McCarthy for years, issued his own statement endorsing the Republican leader.
Therefore, on Thursday afternoon, we were all eager to see if any votes would change. Despite all that, when the seventh ballot came the sole deviation was Gaetz switching his vote from Byron Donalds to Donald Trump. So after all of that, McCarthy was still no closer to the gavel.
This time a new name was thrown into the mix, as Lauren Boebert switched her support to Kevin Hern, all the while taking noticeable glee in the fact that her choice and McCarthy shared the same first name.
Hern’s Oklahoma colleague Brecheen also threw his support behind Hern, even though Hern himself stuck with McCarthy.
Once again, there was minimal movement from the previous ballot to this one. Gaetz was the sole member to switch his vote, going from Trump to Hern. Additionally, Ken Buck left D.C. to head to Colorado for a pre-planned surgery, leaving 433 Representatives now present. As a result, the majority threshold was now 217 votes.
Ballot No. 10 featured an unexplained shift of four votes from Donalds to Hern, coming from Biggs, Crane, Harris and Rosendale.
As this vote was taking place, however, Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman reported that a deal between McCarthy and some of his opponents was being finalized. So while little of consequence was taking place on the House floor, there were constant updates throughout the afternoon on this agreement.
The fifth and final ballot on the third day featured little movement; Gaetz went back to supporting Trump while Rep. Good switched from Donalds to Hern. Rather, the more significant development was the follow-up motion to adjourn. Unlike the previous night, the GOP was more united and prepared as this proposal passed 219 to 213. The only Republican defection was Tim Burchett, with Breechen and Buck missing the roll call.
Throughout Thursday night and Friday morning, reports suggested McCarthy had completed even more deals with his detractors, putting incredible pressure on the California Republican to finally prompt some movement in the 12th ballot.
So while McCarthy didn’t get enough of that aforementioned movement to actually win the Speakership on this ballot, he did secure an apropos twelve-vote switch. Breechen, Bishop, Cloud, Clyde, Donalds, Luna, Miller, Norman, Perry, Roy, Self and Spartz all voted for McCarthy. With three Representatives missing this ballot (Republicans Ken Buck and Wesley Hunt, as well as Democrat David Trone), McCarthy remained three votes short of a majority.
The seven remaining holdouts included Biggs, Gaetz, Good and Harris, who all cast their ballot for Jim Jordan. The other three – Boebert, Crane and Rosendale – threw their support behind Kevin Hern.
Despite technically coming up short, the previous ballot seemed to finally create the wave of momentum that McCarthy was seeking for days. On the 13th ballot, McCarthy’s opponents didn’t even bother to nominate an alternative. Harris then cast her vote for McCarthy, leaving him just two short of the elusive majority.
Meanwhile, the other GOP defectors all went with Jordan, while Democrat Trone returned from surgery to fully unite the Democratic caucus once again.
At that point, McCarthy’s forces sought to adjourn the House until 10:00, in the hopes that they would at last prevail when they reconvened. That motion passed 220-212 with no Republican defections, and McCarthy claimed that he would win when the House returned.
Among the demands that were met was a promise that the debt ceiling would not be raised without spending cuts, a deal that sets up a colossal confrontation with President Biden and Senate Democrats sometime later this year.
When the House returned at 10:00, everyone expected this to be the ballot that would finally put McCarthy over the top. The leader was bragging about his ability to count and a staffer was hyping up the moment on Twitter. Turns out, however, that we hadn’t seen anything yet.
The vote started out strong for McCarthy as Boebert switched to present. Yet Biggs, Crane and Good refused to join in. Then Rosendale, who many assumed would switch to McCarthy, surprised everyone by voting for Biggs instead. The Rep even refused a call from Donald Trump, who had called Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s cell phone on the House floor.
As a result, it came down to Gaetz, who had missed his name on the initial roll call. When the clerk repeated his name at the end of the call, Gaetz switched to present, but this still kept McCarthy just under the majority threshold.
It was at that point that we reached the high point of drama. A visibly upset McCarthy sought out Gaetz and Boebert, trying to convince one of them to change their vote. After McCarthy proved unsuccessful, Rep. Mike Rogers attempted to confront Gaetz and had to be physically restrained by Rep. Richard Hudson. Coming on the second anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, this incident quieted the chamber.
With the dust seemingly settled, and McCarthy still short of a majority, the Republicans called to adjourn until noon on Monday. Even that vote appeared in danger as the final seconds ticked down. Then, all of a sudden, Matt Gaetz walked down to the well and grabbed a red slip to change his vote. He was followed by McCarthy and dozens of other Republicans who now sought to defeat the motion to adjourn.
Apparently, a deal had finally been reached, with reports soon emerging that the intervention of Trump played a crucial role at this juncture.
So, in the wee morning hours of the fifth day, Kevin McCarthy finally was elected the 55th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Biggs, Boeber, Crane, Gaetz, Good and Rosendale all agreed to vote present, while the other 216 Republicans voted for McCarthy and all 212 Democrats voted for Jeffries.
Thus for Kevin McCarthy, a journey that began with a Donald Trump photo op in Mar-A-Lago, culminated with a Marjorie Taylor-Greene celebration selfie.