The Build Back Better Act passed the House on Friday morning, meaning it finally goes to the Senate. The vote was supposed to take place Thursday evening — but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had other ideas.
How, you may be wondering, did McCarthy manage to keep talking for that long without being made to sit down?
McCarthy single-handedly forced the delay by giving a record-breaking 8 1/2-hour speech. Surely, you must be thinking, this tour de force, this herculean effort, must have achieved something? But no, dear reader, this is not the case. In its complete and total pointlessness, McCarthy’s speech was both a masterful summation of the state of his caucus and a fitting distillation of his leadership style.
How, you may be wondering, did McCarthy manage to keep talking for that long without being made to sit down? It’s true that the House is not the Senate. There’s no filibuster rule in the House that lets most representatives go on like that. There is an exception, though, thanks to the so-called magic minute. House leaders are generally allowed to take as long as they want when recognized for one minute of floor time.
It’s a loophole that now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used in 2018, when she set the record that McCarthy broke Thursday night. Her eight-hour speech (in heels, no less) was an attempt to force then-Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to schedule a debate on immigration. Over the course of her speech, she read out hundreds of personal stories from the young, undocumented immigrants the legislation would protect from deportation.
McCarthy’s speech didn’t have that kind of strategic goal in mind. In theory, that time could be used to whip votes on a close bill, which was not the case here. Even after he passed the one-hour mark, McCarthy’s assumed plan was purely tactical, forcing Democrats to hold the final vote in the middle of the night. The attack ads would practically write themselves.
But Democrats decided relatively early in the process that if McCarthy wanted to keep going, they didn’t have to stick around for it. (Even if some were getting a kick out of heckling him both on Twitter and out loud in person.) House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters around midnight that the final vote had been rescheduled for 8 a.m. Friday. “He wants to do it in the dead of night,” Hoyer said. “We are going to do it in the day.”
So with a cadre of his fellow Republicans sitting behind him, McCarthy just … kept talking for another five hours despite having exhausted his A-list material the day before. That speech, as prepared, wasn’t that great to begin with, though. It included wild attacks on popular aspects of the Build Back Better Act including spending “hundreds of billions of dollars on unionized, universal Pre-K” and claiming that offering up to $300 a month per child to lower- and middle-class parents fully “replaces our existing model with welfare without any work requirement.”
But as McCarthy ran out of prepared text, he soon began repeating himself, going in recursive circles on some of the GOP’s favorite non sequiturs — sometimes hitting multiple at once. “You’re celebrating it when inflation is at a 31-percent high, gas prices, Thanksgiving, a border that in a few months breaks every record of the last three years combined” was an actual sentence that came from his mouth.
Why keep going after it was clear that the vote would still take place the next morning? CNN’s Chris Cillizza thinks the whole thing was a signal to McCarthy’s critics that he’s “Trump-y enough for Trump conservatives.” That would be a pretty self-serving reason to keep his fellow Republicans up all night and not come any closer to achieving the caucus’s goals.
Even if the performance was meant for former President Donald Trump’s allies, what we saw was all of the random neuron-firing you get from Trump — with none of the conviction. We’ve watched Republican politicians try and fail to do their best impression; McCarthy is just the latest to flop with this faux-populism shtick. As Stuart Rothenberg wrote in the most utterly devastating line I’ve heard in a minute: “Watching Kevin McCarthy ‘speech,’ I’m struck by the fact that he lacks Mitch McConnell’s charisma.”
When McCarthy finally began to wrap up, it was around 5:04 a.m. Friday morning, three hours before Democrats were to return to the chamber. It’s unlikely anyone else not getting paid to stay up to watch him had done so. There were cheers from his caucus when McCarthy informed them he had indeed broken Pelosi’s record — so at least they had that going for them. Their reward: having to come back to watch the Build Back Better Act pass 220-213.
In the end, McCarthy’s speech had no real audience. It had no real long-term goal in mind. It was devoid of substance. It was filled with boilerplate lines about socialism and immigrants. It tried and failed to match Trump’s energy. It broke a record not to drive home a point, but to own the libs — which, as the vote tally indicates, it did not. Otherwise, it was perfect.