10 min read

Welcome to the McCarthy speakership

Kevin McCarthy has the gavel. Now the House can begin legislating, providing the first tests of his speakership.
Welcome to the McCarthy speakership

Good morning! It’s Monday, January 9, 2023. The 2024 elections are 666 days away.

Welcome back to another week of Wake Up To Politics. I hope you had a great weekend!

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The McCarthy speakership begins

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was elected as the 55th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives early Saturday morning, finally ascending to a position that he has eyed hungrily for decades — and which almost slipped out of his grasp for a second time.

McCarthy’s victory came after 15 rounds of voting on the House floor, the longest election for speaker since 1859 and the first one to include multiple ballots since 1923. The resolution of the fight was every bit as dramatic as the rest: McCarthy had expected to win on the 14th ballot, but was jilted once again by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and his band of right-wing rebels.

It took one more ballot for McCarthy to seal the deal with his rivals; in between, Gaetz and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, almost came to blows on the House floor. (“I regret that I briefly lost my temper,” Rogers tweeted on Sunday; Gaetz said he forgave him.)

A congressman restrains Rep. Mike Rogers as he confronts Matt Gaetz. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

On the final ballot, 216 Republicans voted for McCarthy and all 212 Democrats voted for House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). Six Republicans — Andy Biggs (AZ), Lauren Boebert (CO), Eli Crane (AZ), Gaetz, Bob Good (VA), and Matt Rosedale (MT) — voted “present,” lowering the threshold McCarthy needed to win without formally voting for him.

“That was easy, huh?” McCarthy joked as he ascended to the House rostrum after his victory, holding the speaker’s gavel aloft.

Although his support for McCarthy initially moved few votes, former President Donald Trump ultimately helped move the needle towards McCarthy, reportedly speaking with Biggs and Gaetz on the phone before the final ballot. “I don’t think anyone should doubt his influence” in the party, McCarthy said later.

After lingering in a four-day holding pattern during the speaker fight, the 118th Congress will now be able to move to legislative business starting today. As it does so, the question facing McCarthy — as posed by the Associated Press — is whether he comes out of the speaker fight an “emboldened survivor” or a “weakened leader.” Will the drawn-out battle define him as someone who stuck it out for 15 ballots and came out on top, or as someone who gave away so much to get there that it hardly matters?  

Kevin McCarthy holds the speaker’s gavel aloft. (McCarthy’s office) 

Let’s review what he had to give his rivals in order to get the gavel...

  • Two concessions that diminish his power: A vote to oust McCarthy as speaker (known as a “motion to vacate the chair”) will be able to be triggered at any time via a motion by just one lawmaker. Under his predecessor, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), half of the majority party was needed to trigger such a vote.
  • McCarthy also promised the right-wing Freedom Caucus three seats on the House Rules Committee, which must act on most bills before they make it to the House floor. Traditionally, the speaker has handpicked the majority party’s Rules Committee members, which has been a a major source of their power over the chamber. Now, if the four Democrats on the panel and the three Freedom Caucus members oppose a piece of legislation, the six McCarthy-aligned Republicans on the committee will be out-voted.
  • A concession that will divide the party: Per Bloomberg, McCarthy committed to capping government spending in fiscal year 2024 at fiscal year 2022 levels, which would mean reversing the $75 billion funding boost received by the Defense Department in fiscal year 2023. While the Freedom Caucus supports lowering government spending, national security hawks in the House Republican Conference are likely to oppose the promised defense cuts.
  • A concession that will drive media attention: As House Republicans prepare to launch a series of investigations into the Biden administration, McCarthy agreed to create a new “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government,” which will probe alleged abuses by the FBI and other intelligence agencies. The new subcommittee is set to receive as much funding as the January 6th committee did in the last Congress.

Many of those giveaways will be codified today as the House votes on the 55-page rules package for the new Congress that McCarthy negotiated with his defectors. One Republican moderate, Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX), has declared his intention to vote against the package due to McCarthy’s promised defense cuts.

No other Republicans have signaled plans to oppose the new rules, although Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) said on Sunday that she is “on the fence.” Five Republicans would need to vote against the package for it to be defeated.

Marjorie Taylor Greene and other right-wing Republicans will be empowered in the new House majority. (Greene’s office)

A looming fight

Not every concession that McCarthy agreed to is outlined in the rules package. The rest, per Punchbowl News, are detailed in “secret three-page addendum that McCarthy and his allies hashed out during several days of grueling negotiations with the House Freedom Caucus.”

Those more secret concessions reportedly include McCarthy’s promise to the Freedom Caucus that any debt ceiling increase in the next two years be paired with spending cuts.

The debt ceiling is the limit to how much the U.S. government can borrow in order to pay its existing obligations, from Social Security and Medicare benefits to military salaries. Congress has always raised the ceiling before it has been hit; doing so does not approve new spending, but rather allows the government to pay for spending that has already been approved.

The Biden administration has said it will not agree to any deal that requires spending cuts in exchange for a debt ceiling increase, setting up a high-stakes fight that will result directly from last week’s showdown. Failure to raise the debt ceiling would lead to the U.S. defaulting on its debt for the first time ever, which economics believe would trigger a global financial meltdown.

The debt ceiling is expected to be hit this summer. If you thought the speaker fight was chaotic, buckle up.

🤔 Ask Gabe: Your McCarthy questions

I received a lot of questions from readers about the speakership fight last week; even though it has a come to close, I want to take the opportunity to answer them here over the next few days.

In addition to being interesting questions that illuminate the machinery of government, I also think answering them is important because they will help your understanding in case a similar speaker fight comes up again.

Jerry N. asks: “Since the newly elected members of the House have not yet been sworn in, and are therefore not yet officially members of Congress, how is it that they get to vote in the election of the new speaker?”
Kandace R. asks: “How can representatives vote for speaker when they haven’t even been sworn in?”

Before the House rules have been adopted, the House is governed under what’s known as “General Parliamentary Law,” which includes the past procedures of the chamber. Those procedures lay out the process for the first day of Congress, starting with members-elect presenting their “certificates of election” to the clerk, who reviews whether they are in “proper form and validly issued.”

If their certificates are judged to be valid, the members-elect are allowed to take their first vote — electing a speaker — before they formally are sworn-in as members.

Why doesn’t the House just swear in its members and then elect a speaker? Because a 1789 law (actually the first law ever passed by the first Congress) requires that House members be sworn in by the House speaker... which can’t happen if there isn’t a speaker, of course. Due to that statute, the House considers the speaker’s election to be of “higher constitutional privilege” than any other business, even swearing members in.

Jed K. asks: “What would be happening if this were a presidential election year? Does the old Congress certify the results or the new Congress (of which at least one portion is incapacitated)?”

Presidential election results — as you may recall — are certified on January 6, and the old Congress dissolves on January 3, so the task falls to the new Congress.

Which brings up a great point to keep in the back of your mind: certifying the presidential victor might have been rendered impossible if the drawn-out speaker vote had taken place after a presidential election year. That would have put us in uncharted territory — or possibly will put us in uncharted territory, if there is a similar fight over the speakership two years from now.

Natalie F. asks: “Would the concessions McCarthy is agreeing to be permanent? Or would they just apply while he is the speaker?”

Unlike the Senate, the House is not a continuous body, which means it must approve a new rules package every two years. That means the new rules McCarthy negotiated — which will receive a vote today — would only continue in the next Congress if they are approved again by the House.

Julia J. asks: “When it says they now only need one member to vacate the speaker, does that include Democrats? Could a Democratic congressperson call for a new vote for the speaker?”

Yes. The motion would be doomed to fail unless it also had Republican support, but technically any Democratic or Republican member will now be able to make a motion to vacate.

🚨 More news you should know

➞ Brazil’s January 6th. More than 1,200 protesters were arrested in Brazil’s capital this weekend after supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former president, stormed government buildings. The riots, incited by false claims of a stolen election, were eerily similar to the January 6th attack here in the U.S. Read more via AP

  • The American angle: Former President Donald Trump endorsed Bolsonaro’s failed re-election campaign, and Bolsonaro — who decamped to Florida after leaving office — reportedly spent New Year’s Eve at Mar-a-Lago. Trump confidants Steve Bannon and Jason Miller are also advising Bolsonaro.
  • President Biden, who is facing pressure from Democrats to extradite Bolsonaro, condemned the “assault on democracy” on Sunday.

➞ Biden at the border. “President Joe Biden visited the US-Mexico border on Sunday for the first time as president, but he did not appear to see or meet with migrants, including during a trip to a migrant respite center.” Read more via CNN

  • The 2024 angle: As noted by Axios, this is Biden’s second trip in 2023 — after a joint appearance with Mitch McConnell in Kentucky last week — that could be seen as a pivot to the center ahead of a 2024 bid. Biden is reportedly preparing to launch his re-election campaign as early as next month.
  • Meanwhile: “Officials now are preparing for the possibility of between 12,000 to 14,000 migrants attempting to cross [the U.S.-Mexico border] every day.”

➞ Supreme Court ethics. She has only been on the Supreme Court for three months, but Ketanji Brown Jackson is the latest justice to fetch a likely million-dollar book advance. The trend has worried legal ethics experts. Read more via Bloomberg

President Biden visiting the border. (White House)

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern.

Executive Branch

President Biden is in Mexico City, Mexico. He will participate in a welcome ceremony, meet with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and participate in a trilateral dinner with Lopez Obrador, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and their spouses.

First Lady Biden is also in Mexico. In addition to joining her husband for the welcome ceremony and trilateral dinner, she will also host an event on women’s empowerment, join local students for a flag football event, and attend a lecture event with the Mexican first lady.

Vice President Harris will hold a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony for Elizabeth Bagley, the new U.S. ambassador to Brazil. Bagley, a major Democratic donor, will be taking office on the day after supporters of Brazil’s former president stormed the nation’s Congress building.

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will tour a magnet school in Los Angeles that is intended to prepare students for careers in the entertainment industry. Emhoff will host a roundtable with students and members of the school’s advisory board, including George Clooney, Mindy Kaling, and Don Cheadle.

Legislative Branch

The Senate is on recess until January 23.  

The House will vote on the chamber’s new rules package for the 118th Congress and the Family and Small Business Taxpayer Protection Act, which would rescind the $80 billion in new IRS funding passed by the Democrats last year. Watch at 5 p.m.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in:

  • In re Grand Jury, a case on whether attorney-client privilege applies to a lawyer’s advice that includes both legal and nonlegal components. Listen to oral arguments at 10 a.m.
  • Ohio Adjutant General’s Department v. Federal Labor Relations Authority, a case on whether Ohio National Guard technicians who are dually employed by both the state and federal governments have the collective bargaining rights accorded to federal employees. Listen to oral arguments at 11 a.m.

👋 Before I go...

Here’s a fun story from last week’s speakership fight: “This congressman carried his baby around the Capitol all week” via the Washington Post.

👍 Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe