The 57-year-old Californian suffered a final humiliation when Representative Matt Gaetz withheld his vote on the 14th ballot as midnight approached, sparking a scuffle that required fellow Republican Mike Rogers to be physically pulled away.
McCarthy’s victory on the 15th ballot ended the deepest congressional dysfunction in more than 160 years. But it sharply illustrated the difficulties he will face in leading a small and highly polarized majority.
He eventually won by a margin of 216-212. He was elected with the votes of less than half of the House members only because six in his own party withheld their votes—not supporting McCarthy as leader, but not voting for another contender either.
“I’m glad it’s over,” McCarthy told reporters shortly after the vote.
McCarthy agreed to a demand from hardliners that any legislator can ask for his removal at any time. That will sharply reduce the power he will have when he tries to pass legislation on critical issues, including financing the government, addressing the country’s looming debt ceiling and other crises that may arise.
“We have the things that are transformational,” the Republican representative said Ralph Normanwho voted for McCarthy after antagonizing him for much of the week.
The Republicans’ weaker performance in the November midterm elections gave them a narrow 222-212 majority, giving excessive power to the right-wing hardliners who have opposed McCarthy’s leadership.
Those concessions, which include hefty budget cuts and other restrictions on McCarthy’s leadership, could point to further turbulence in the coming months, especially when Congress must approve a further $31.4 trillion increase in the United States’ borrowing power.
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 attempts to implement major austerity measures, mostly unsuccessfully.
Several of the hardliners have questioned McCarthy’s willingness to engage in such a tour de force in negotiations with President Joe Biden, whose Democrats control the Senate. They have raged in the past when Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell agreed to compromise deals.
The hardliners, including the chairman of the Freedom Caucus Scott Perry and Chip Roy of Texas, said concessions they obtained from McCarthy will make it easier to pursue such tactics this year — or force a new vote on McCarthy’s leadership if he falls short of their expectations.
“You have changes in the way we are going to spend and allocate money that will be historic,” said Rep. Scott Perry, the chair of the far-right House Freedom Caucus.
“We don’t want clean debt ceilings to just go through and just keep footing the bill with no quid pro quo to control spending while the Democrats control the White House and control the Senate.”
One of those Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumerwarned that the concessions McCarthy made to land the job might come back to haunt him.
“Kevin McCarthy’s concessions to the extremists in his party make it much more likely that the MAGA Republican House will trigger a government shutdown or bankruptcy with devastating consequences for our country,” Schumer said in a statement.
In stark contrast to this week’s battles between House Republicans, Biden and McConnell appeared together in Kentucky on Wednesday to highlight infrastructure investments.
McCarthy’s belated victory came the day after the two-year anniversary of an attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, when a violent mob stormed Congress in an attempt to reverse then-President Donald Trump’s election loss.
This week’s 14 failed votes marked the highest number of ballots for the speakership since 1859, in the turbulent years before the Civil War.
McCarthy’s last bid for speaker, in 2015, collapsed despite right-wing opposition. The two previous Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, left the job after a clash with right-wing colleagues.
Wielding the gavel will give McCarthy the authority to block Biden’s legislative agenda, force votes for Republican priorities on the economy, energy and immigration and continue investigations into Biden, his administration and his family.
But McCarthy has agreed to concessions that mean he will have significantly less power than his predecessor, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, according to sources involved in the talks. That will make it difficult for him to agree with Democrats in a divided Washington.
Allowing a single member to vote to remove the speaker gives hardliners extraordinary clout.
He has also offered influential commission posts to members of the group, lawmakers said, as well as spending restrictions aimed at achieving a balanced budget within 10 years. The agreement would limit spending for the next fiscal year to last year’s levels — representing a significant reduction 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, especially as the United States spends money to help Ukraine fend off a Russian attack.
Moderate Republican Brian Fitzpatrick said he was not afraid the House would effectively be run by hardliners.
“It’s ambitious,” he told reporters. “We still have our voting cards.”