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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In speaker fight’s final hours, arm-twisting, flaring tempers and calls from Trump

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) reacts as the House’s vote to select a speaker continues, at the Capitol in Washington, on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023.


Confident that he was about to win the speaker’s gavel after a torturous four-day stretch of defeats, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., sat grinning late Friday night in his chair on the House floor. Then his face dropped.

As the voting dragged on in his 14th attempt to become speaker, it had become clear that winning would require the support of Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, the Republican leader’s chief antagonist — and Gaetz had just voted “present.”

For days as the historic floor fight played out, McCarthy had remained in his seat and dispatched allies to buttonhole the remaining holdouts privately. Now, his sunny smile replaced with a clenched jaw, McCarthy strode across the floor to confront Gaetz, who leaned back in his seat, exuding defiance.

McCarthy spoke sternly to Gaetz, appealing to him to finally relent and allow the speakership crisis to end; the Florida Republican jabbed his finger as he refused. After two minutes, McCarthy, seething and head down — the first flash of frustration he had showed all week — returned to his seat. He didn’t have the votes.

The astonishing spectacle that played out into the early hours of Saturday morning was a fitting coda to a week that spotlighted the deep divisions in the Republican Party, the power of an unyielding hard-right flank that revels in upending normal operations of government, and a leader who has repeatedly capitulated to the right in his quest for power.

The final hours of McCarthy’s ultimately triumphant struggle for the speakership featured backroom dealing with the hard right and arm-twisting out in the open; phone calls from Donald Trump, the twice-impeached former president, to try to win over holdouts; haggling over how the House would operate in the coming two years; and even a narrowly avoided physical altercation inside the chamber.

“Preferably, you do this in private,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, who acted as McCarthy’s chief emissary negotiating with the rebels. “The preference in politics is to always suffer your indignities in private, not in public. That was the goal. And the last weekend, it was evident that we would have to suffer this in public.” Suffer they did.

“That was easy, huh?” McCarthy said after finally taking the gavel just after 1 a.m. “I never thought we’d get up here.”

Over the past century, the negotiating and deal-cutting that have paved the way for the ascendance of new House speakers have typically played out behind closed doors and far before the actual election; no speaker designate had needed more than one ballot to be elected since 1923. Instead, on Friday, much of the charged eleventh-hour negotiations was televised in real time for all to see.

The dysfunction that left the House without a speaker for a week also allowed the indignities to become more public. Photographers and videographers, unfettered from the normal rules governing their conduct because there was no speaker to put any in place, allowed spectators the opportunity to parse rare footage live from the House floor.

As McCarthy’s supporters furiously haggled with the hard-right holdouts, photographers captured a striking moment involving Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a recent McCarthy ally. Greene was seen trying to push her phone, which displayed a call from “DT,” into the hands of Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., a crucial defector. It was Trump on the line.

Rosendale furiously told Greene not to put him in that situation, brushing the phone away, according to lawmakers who witnessed it.

Around the same time, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., who is in line to become the next chair of the Armed Services Committee, had to be physically restrained by another lawmaker who clapped his hand over Rogers’ open mouth after the irate congressman approached Gaetz.

“We haven’t seen this in a century,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., referencing the last time a speaker election dragged out past nine ballots. “We’re in an emotional climate to begin with, absent this, before we got here. It’s emotions running high.”

Rogers had vented his frustration with the defectors over the past week, threatening during a closed-door party discussion Tuesday that they could lose their seats on committees for their disloyalty. But he has reserved special contempt for Gaetz, the fourth-term Trump acolyte who has established himself as an attention-seeking rabble-rouser on Capitol Hill.

Gaetz had told McCarthy and his allies that he was interested in leading an influential panel on the Armed Services Committee, where he has served since he arrived in Congress in 2017, according to people familiar with the discussions. Rogers was having none of it. (An aide to Gaetz said that the congressman had not sought a subcommittee chairmanship and did not anticipate receiving one.)

Now Gaetz and Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., two of the most intractable holdouts, were refusing to budge and suggested that the House adjourn until Monday before any more voting took place.

Greene, one of McCarthy’s most vociferous backers, was seen rolling her eyes while sidling up to Boebert, a fellow member of the Freedom Caucus, to tap her on the shoulder.

“You need to stop,” Greene appeared to say. Boebert responded curtly, staring straight ahead.

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., said later that Gaetz and Boebert had appeared dug in. “They said that they had agreed to both vote present, and they voted present, so that’s as far as they were going to move,” Buck said.

Crestfallen, McCarthy marched back to his seat, and McHenry called for the chamber to adjourn.

Yet there was movement still to come after all. After the failed 14th vote, Trump phoned Gaetz, according to two people familiar with the conversation. CNN reported that Trump had also reached out to Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., who had remained a holdout even as a large group of defectors had swung their support behind McCarthy earlier in the day.

As the vote to adjourn unfolded, there was a shift in the energy on the House floor and a commotion that appeared to change the mood. With little warning, both Gaetz and Boebert marched to the well of the chamber and raised up red cards to show they were switching their votes on adjourning to “no” after all.

“Everyone take your seats,” McCarthy said, appearing relieved. “Let’s do it one more time.”

On the next ballot — the 15th and final — Gaetz and Boebert cast the same “present” votes, signaling they did not support McCarthy but reducing the number of votes he would need to win a majority. The last of the holdouts — Biggs, Rosendale, and Reps. Eli Crane of Arizona and Bob Good of Virginia — fell in line and also changed their votes to “present,” allowing McCarthy to become speaker.

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