Speaker McCarthy: A weakened leader or emboldened survivor?

AP Photo/ Matt Rourke
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., gestures towards the newly installed nameplate at his office after he was sworn in as speaker of the 118th Congress in Washington, early Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Kevin McCarthy is the new House speaker, but as bruising as it was for him to seize the gavel in a history-making election, it may be even more difficult for the embattled leader to do much with the powerful position — or to even keep it.

Like the two most recent Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, McCarthy takes the helm of a restive, rebellious majority split in much the same way as the party itself, between what’s left of the Grand Old Party conservatives and a new generation of tea party-to-Donald Trump hard-liners preferring almost no big government at all.

The chaos that erupted in four days of House voting, halting start of the new Congress, is a prelude to the highly uncertain path ahead as McCarthy tries to lead an unruly Republican majority to achieve its priorities and confront President Joe Biden’s agenda — and maybe even keep the government from shutting down.

“This is the great part: Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern,” McCarthy, who was first elected in 2006, suggested as he rounded toward victory.

McCarthy endured a grueling weeklong fight to get here, a speaker’s election like no other since the eve of the Civil War. A coalition of 20 holdouts refused to support his speakership unless he yielded to their demands to give away some power. He was forced to roll through 14 ballots before he finally won a majority vote on the 15th vote, but not before the final chaotic scene of shouting between allies and holdouts pushed balloting into early Saturday.

In the end, McCarthy emerges as a weakened speaker, one with less authority on paper than those before him. That’s particularly true because he agreed to give the hard-right holdouts a key concession: restoring a rule that allows any single lawmaker to make a “motion to vacate the chair,” essentially a vote to oust the speaker from that leadership post.

But in some ways, the son of gritty Bakersfield, an oil-and-agricultural heartland in central California, also becomes emboldened as a survivor who withstood one of history’s most brutal brawls for power and who prides himself on being an underestimated political fighter.

“Apparently, I like to make history,” McCarthy quipped at one point during the raucous week.

McCarthy staked his political career on early backing of Trump, and it was the former president who delivered when needed, making late phone calls to holdouts and “helping get those final votes.” When it was finally over, when McCarthy walked into the speaker’s office at the Capitol, the sign bearing his name already was hanging.

Plenty of tests await.

Congress faces an agenda of must-pass bills to fund the government, restock a military whose supplies have been depleted by decades of war and aid to Ukraine, authorize farming programs and raise the nation’s borrowing limit to avert an unprecedented federal default.

For the first time as president, Biden will face a divided government, with the House in Republican hands and the Senate still controlled, though narrowly, by Democrats.

Divided government can be a time of bipartisan deal-making as the parties come together to accomplish big priorities. But more often it results in brinkmanship that has led to stalemates, standoffs and shutdowns.

House Republicans are eager to confront Biden with oversight of the White House’s handling of the U.S.-Mexico border, the COVID-19 crisis and other issues, along with investigations of Biden, his family and his administration.

“I came to Washington to challenge the status quo,” wrote Republican Bob Good of Virginia in an op-ed before his many votes against McCarthy. “I intend to keep that promise.” Good was one of six Republican who voted “present” in the final roll call.

McCarthy has been here before.

In 2011, tea party Republicans took control of the House, confronting the agenda of President Barack Obama and his vice president, Biden. The movement opposed the Washington political establishment and espoused a conservative and libertarian philosophy, advocating for less spending, lower taxes and reducing the national debt and budget deficit.

McCarthy helped recruit the tea party class, and he went on to become the third-ranking Republican, part of the “Young Guns” with Ryan of Wisconsin and then-Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia.

Fueled by the tea party, they went on to lead House Republicans into crisis after crisis with efforts to cut federal spending during the “fiscal cliff” of 2012 and federal shutdowns in 2013 as they tried to repeal Obama’s health care program.

In 2015, when then-Rep. Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Republican who led the Freedom Caucus and later served as Trump’s last chief of staff, threatened a “motion to vacate the chair” — a vote to oust the speaker — Boehner chose early retirement.

McCarthy tried to take Boehner’s place, but he dropped out of the race when it was clear he would not have support from conservatives. Ryan ended up with the job. But he, too, retired in the Trump era.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did away with the “vacate the chair” rule when Democrats regained the majority in 2019. A seasoned legislator who had made history as the first woman to be speaker, Pelosi ran the House with the strength of experience.

McCarthy has been in office for 15 years, half as long as Pelosi when she first took the helm, and with far fewer legislative victories to speak of. In talks over the past week with the hard-liners, he was forced to reinstate the “motion to vacate the chair” to win over the holdouts. They can now hold it over him every single day.

“If a CEO is not doing the job, you can fire him — same thing in politics,” said Republican Ralph Norman of South Carolina, one of the holdouts McCarthy won over with the rules changes.

The chaos that erupted on the House floor this past week may end up as a prelude to the Congress to come.

“What you saw over the last week,” Norman said, “is how democracy works.”