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Did Kevin McCarthy pay too high a price for the speaker’s gavel?

The good news for Kevin McCarthy is that he finally received the speaker's gavel. The bad news is that he paid an enormous price that leaves him weak.


Kevin McCarthy was expected to become speaker of the House in 2015, and by all appearances, he was the clear favorite in the late summer of 2015. The California Republican’s mouth, however, got in the way: McCarthy accidentally told the truth about the political purpose of the GOP’s Benghazi committee, and the backlash from his own allies was so intense, he had no choice but to withdraw from consideration.

Roughly three years later, as Paul Ryan prepared to give up the speaker’s gavel, McCarthy was again well positioned to sit in the big chair, but voters got in the way: Donald Trump’s presidency sparked a public backlash, and the GOP suffered a net loss of 40 seats in the chamber, denying McCarthy the promotion.

It obviously wasn’t easy, and the process took more ballots than in any race for speaker since before the Civil War, but the third time was the charm. As NBC News reported, the tumult came to a clumsy end early Saturday morning:

After four days of deadlock and embarrassing defeats not seen in a century, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy finally carved out a path to placate a faction of rebels and secure the top job early Saturday, with promises that could come back to haunt him. McCarthy flipped 14 of his holdouts and convinced the rest to stand down, securing election as the 53rd speaker of the House on the 15th ballot after overcoming a last-minute wrench that scuttled his best-laid plans on the previous ballot.

The new speaker never managed to get 218 votes — the threshold for a majority in the chamber — but he prevailed when his six remaining intra-party opponents voted “present.”

The road ahead is complex and unpredictable, but as the dust settles and the 118th Congress prepares for its overdue beginning, one key question hangs overhead: Did McCarthy pay too high a price for the gavel?

NBC News’ report added that he “made a series of concessions that weaken the power of his office and expand the clout of far-right members of the House Republican conference, which critics say could complicate his job of governing under a wafer-thin majority.”

McCarthy was clearly short of the votes he needed, and even his allies struggled to see his path to success. He did not reverse his fortunes through powerful displays of leadership or by employing his powers of persuasion.

He survived by caving — making a deal in which McCarthy gave up more than he ever thought he’d have to.

Asked why he ultimately allowed McCarthy to become speaker, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida conceded, “I ran out of things I could even imagine to ask for.”

McCarthy prevailed, in other words, because his opponents took “yes” for an answer.

Consider some of the most notable concessions:

Motion to vacate the chair: Don’t get hung up on the congressional jargon. In practical terms, the motion to vacate the chair allows House members to oust their own sitting speaker — or at least try to — by way of a vote that effectively serves as a no-confidence vote. McCarthy said for weeks that he wouldn’t give in on this point, because he didn’t want that sword hanging over his head for the next two years, putting him in constant jeopardy.

He caved anyway, initially saying he’d let as few as five of his own members force a no-confidence vote against their leader, before ultimately agreeing to lower the threshold to just one member.

The result is a dynamic in which McCarthy will constantly be looking over his shoulder, knowing that if one of his members get angry enough with him, he or she could force a vote to depose him. If that member finds a handful of allies, it wouldn’t be too difficult to actually succeed in forcing the new speaker from his post.

Rules Committee: Those who keep an eye on Congress might be under the impression that after a bill clears the relevant committee, it heads to the floor for a vote. But that’s not quite right: Measures first have to go to the Rules Committee, which sets the terms of the floor debate.

McCarthy’s far-right opponents have reportedly secured three slots on this panel, which matters a great deal: With those Rules Committee seats, far-right Republicans could join with the panel’s Democrats in killing practically any piece of legislation before it has a chance to reach the floor.

Debt ceiling: McCarthy reportedly agreed to pursue a hostage crisis that would force the country into a possible default, while scrapping the so-called Gephardt rule, which allows the Congress to suspend, rather than lift, the debt limit.

Holman Rule: According to a released summary, this provision allows “amendments to appropriations legislation that would reduce the salary of or fire specific federal employees, or cut a specific program.”

Undisclosed details: House Republicans themselves concede they don't yet know every detail of what McCarthy accepted, and Punchbowl News this morning referenced "a secret three-page addendum" to a rules package that still needs to be approved.

Yes, McCarthy’s ambitions have been fulfilled, and he’ll get to sit in a very nice office with a beautiful view. But he’s also reached an opaque agreement in which his most radical flank will have undue influence over the House’s direction, leaving him in a weaker position than any modern speaker.