9 min read

McCarthy at a crossroads

Welcome to Day Four of the battle for the gavel. Will a new deal between Kevin McCarthy and his rivals be enough to seal the speakership?
McCarthy at a crossroads
(C-SPAN screengrab)

Good morning! It’s Friday, January 6, 2023. The 2024 elections are 669 days away.

Today is the 2nd anniversary of the January 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol. Like many of you, I will never forget watching the attack unfold on television, glued to the screen and frozen in astonishment as an institution I’ve revered for so long was ransacked.

Not long after the riot, I arrived in D.C. for the second semester of my freshman year of college. That city had transported into a war zone: large portions of the capital were closed off, tanks were in the streets, National Guard officers were everywhere you looked. Fear hung in the air and lingered there for many weeks.

Now, of course, the Capitol is mired in a very different sort of chaos — procedural, not violent, but historic nonetheless. As the House enters its fourth day without a speaker, the situation remains fluid as ever, but I will do my best to catch you up on where things stand.

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McCarthy edges closer to a deal, but key holdouts remain

Leaving the Capitol last night after suffering defeats in 11 straight votes for the House speakership, Kevin McCarthy insisted that his spirits were high.

“I feel good today, really,” McCarthy told reporters. “I felt very positive yesterday. I feel more positive today. I think we had really good discussions.” At the very end of the minute-long exchange, McCarthy’s back already turned as he walked out of the building, a reporter yelled out the obvious follow-up: “Did you close it, though?”

“We’ll see,” the California Republican responded.

When the House gavels in for its 12th vote today, McCarthy’s ongoing speakership battle will be tied for the fifth-longest ever. No speaker election has required more ballots since before the Civil War. “Apparently, I like to make history,” McCarthy joked on Thursday.

For the third consecutive day, McCarthy did not add a single supporter during yesterday’s balloting, as 21 Republicans continued to either oppose him or vote “present.”

The most significant change was that the holdouts shuffled slightly who they were voting for: by the last ballot, 12 were backing Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL), 7 put forward Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK), one cast a vote for former President Donald Trump, and one continued to abstain. (Trump, ostensibly a McCarthy supporter, responded to his vote by happily posting a doctored photo of himself in the speaker’s chair on Truth Social.)

A possible deal

Why, then, does McCarthy feel more confident? Because a deal is reportedly in the offing between the GOP leader and at least some of his defectors.

According to Punchbowl News, the tentative agreement includes several of the planks that have been under discussion for days now:

  • A one-member threshold for triggering a mid-session vote to oust the speaker.
  • Increased representation for the conservative Freedom Caucus on top committees, including the powerful Rules panel.
  • Votes on specific legislation, including a bill instituting term limits for members of Congress, and a promise to hold individual votes on all 12 annual appropriations bills (as opposed to packaging them together in an “omnibus”).
  • An expanded budget for the “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government,” which will probe the Biden administration and receive almost as much funding as the January 6th committee.
Kevin McCarthy faces a crossroads today as his speakership bid drags on. (Gage Skidmore)

Will it be enough?

In Team McCarthy’s chosen parlance, the path forward now involves two phases. “Phase One,” as Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) explained to Roll Call, involves picking off the more gettable faction of defectors with this new deal, including Reps. Scott Perry (R-PA) and Chris Roy (R-TX), who have been closely involved in the negotiations.

It remains unclear how large this faction is, although Reuters cited multiple GOP sources who said around 10 defectors might flip today. If everyone in the House is voting for a candidate, McCarthy will need support from 17 of the 21 defectors — which means this agreement is not currently expected to bring him over the finish line.  

That’s where “Phase Two” comes in: trying to peel off the remaining anti-McCarthy Republicans one by one, likely by offering additional concessions. Per Bloomberg, another idea under discussion is to allow some of the “Phase Two” holdouts to vote “hell no,” which would then be counted as voting “present” (thereby lowering the number McCarthy needs to win.)

But how many “phases” will McCarthy’s allies stick around for? Several of the holdouts, after all, remain staunchly dug-in: Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) have both rejected the deal. “You never have to ask me again if I’m a ‘no’ on Kevin McCarthy,” Rep. Bob Good (R-VA) said Thursday. “I will never vote for Kevin McCarthy.”

It will be a positive sign for McCarthy if he can grow his support in today’s ballot, but after that, some of his supporters will only let “Phase Two” drags on so long if at least five Republicans remain unmoved. At some point, the business of the House must continue: members will want to be sworn in, and get back to committees, and classified briefings, and constituent casework (none of which can be done until they choose a speaker).

Members have now spent 17 hours and 55 minutes of their lives holding ballot after ballot, lingering in congressional purgatory.

Pretty soon, we will find out which comes first: 17 of the “Never Kevins” giving into McCarthy, or some of the “Only Kevins” giving up on him. Unless this deal moves the needle enough and significantly boosts McCarthy, the breaking point may be near. “Senior Republicans are increasingly whispering that if McCarthy can’t wrap this up soon, he needs to step aside and let someone else try,” according to Politico.

In addition, some McCarthy supporters are also beginning to grumble about the concessions he is making, especially the possibility that individual Freedom Caucus members will be rewarded for their intransigence with prime subcommittee gavels. Centrist members fear that McCarthy’s speakership will come at the cost of the Freedom Caucus becoming the House’s real power center while he is a weakened figurehead clinging to the gavel. (And that is before the inevitable “Phase Two” concessions, which could be even weightier.)

“If my colleagues get what they want from McCarthy, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus will actually be more important than the speaker of the House,” Gaetz pointed out in a Fox News interview; he has also said that the only condition under which McCarthy becomes speaker is one that places him in a “straightjacket.”

Matt Gaetz is one of the most committed anti-McCarthy holdouts. (Gage Skidmore)

The road ahead

As the first, bizarre week of the 118th Congress comes to a close, this will be a crucial day for McCarthy.

The day will begin with a conference call of all House Republicans at 10:15 a.m. Eastern Time, the first private session with the entire conference since the voting began. (The last one, an in-person meeting on Tuesday morning, quickly went off the rails. One McCarthy supporter, Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, called it “a bit cowardly” to do this one over the phone).

Then voting is expected to resume shortly after 12 p.m., the first opportunity to see if the latest agreement has won McCarthy some support.

That will be a crucial crossroads. At that point, either McCarthy will have picked up a substantial bloc of votes, which will generate him enough momentum to keep going even if he isn’t yet at 218; or McCarthy’s own supporters will begin dropping off if victory remains elusive. If this deal doesn’t seal it, they might begin wondering, will anything?

In addition to the reasons for attrition listed above — impatience and frustration with the concessions — if voting stretches into the weekend, McCarthy faces another hurdle: absences. There are reportedly at least four Republicans who might have to leave town for personal reasons, from a mother’s funeral to a newborn son. Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) already had to miss the last few votes on Thursday for a medical procedure.

Until someone notches a majority, all the House is able to do is vote for speaker again and again, leaving the chamber in an endless blur of balloting that some members will eventually need to escape. Funerals, babies, illnesses: life, not just politics, will start to get in the way.

In each of his conversations with reporters Thursday, McCarthy continued to wave all of that off. He appears just as dug-in as his opponents: “At what point do you say that this is not going to change for you?” one reported asked him. “After I win,” he responded.

“It’s not how you start,” McCarthy insisted at another point. “It’s how you finish.” With three days and 11 ballots behind us, that finish line may be fast-approaching — no matter which side of it McCarthy ends on.

🚨 More news you should know

ECONOMY: The U.S. added 223,000 jobs in December, more than expected, while the unemployment rate fell to 3.5%, matching a 53-year low. Read more

TWO YEARS: The estate of a Capitol Police officer who died after responding to the January 6th riot has filed a wrongful death lawsuit Thursday against former President Donald Trump, seeking $10 million in damages. Read more

UKRAINE: Russian president Vladimir Putin has declared a 36-hour ceasefire, beginning at noon today, to mark Orthodox Christmas. Kyiv has expressed skepticism of the order. Read more

BORDER: President Biden announced changes to his immigration policy on Thursday, broadening the Trump-era Title 42 order to allow for quick expulsion of migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela while also expanding a program to offer temporary legal status to migrants from those countries with a U.S. sponsor. Read more

  • What’s next: Biden is poised to make his first visit to the U.S.-Mexico border on Sunday, after years of Republican calls for him to go.

ABORTION: The South Carolina Supreme Court struck down the state’s six-week abortion ban on Thursday, declaring that “our state constitutional right to privacy extends to a woman’s decision to have an abortion.” Read more

President Biden announced new border restrictions on Thursday. (Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño)

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern.

Executive Branch

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing, have lunch with Vice President Harris, deliver a speech marking the two-year anniversary of the Capitol riot, and leave to spend the weekend in Delaware. Watch Biden’s January 6th speech at 2 p.m.

  • During his January 6th remarks, Biden will award the Presidential Citizens Medal — the nation’s second-highest civilian honor — to seven law enforcement officers who defended the Capitol during the riot and five election workers and officials who resisted pressure to overturn the 2020 vote.

Vice President Harris will ceremonially swear in Bijan Sabet, a venture capitalist and major Democratic donor, as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. Then, she will join Biden for lunch and attend his January 6th remarks.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold the White House press briefing. Watch at 12:45 p.m.

Legislative Branch

The Senate is on recess until January 23, but the chamber will briefly gavel in today for a pro forma session. No business will be conducted; such sessions are sparsely attended and only held to fulfill a constitutional obligation. Watch at 1:05 p.m.

The House will continue voting on a new speaker. If a speaker is elected, members will — finally — be sworn in and then vote on the new rules package and possibly the Family and Small Business Taxpayer Protection Act, which would rescind $71 billion in funding passed last year to hire 87,000 new IRS employees. Watch at 12 p.m.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court will meet for its first weekly conference of the year.

👋 Before I go...

Here’s a fun story for you: The Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control recently received an unusual request. “I would like your approval if I can have a unicorn in my backyard,” Madeline, 6, wrote straightforwardly.

Luckily for her, the bureaucracy relented and cut through the red tape. Director Marcia Mayeda wrote back, granting Madeline a unicorn license, so long as she complied with the county’s “conditions,” including that the animal be given “regular access to sunlight, moonbeams, and rainbows.”

Read the full story from NPR. Thanks to reader Michael B. for sending it in.

👍 Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe