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Kevin McCarthy finally elected speaker but divisions in Republican Party on full display

Dramatic and chaotic scenes on the floor of the US House of Representatives as speaker elected after 15 separate votes

It was after midnight on Friday in Washington and amid dramatic scenes on the floor of the US House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy finally ground out a victory over a group of right wing rebels in his own Republican Party to achieve his long-time goal of securing the position of speaker.

The final 15th vote ended days of deadlock, which had paralysed the House of Representatives.

However, the process displayed on live television across the United States the fractious nature of the Republican Party and showed up its deep internal divisions.

At one point a Republican politician appeared to lunge at one of his party colleagues who had denied McCarthy victory in an earlier ballot on the speakership.


Just after 12.30am on the east coast, McCarthy achieved the necessary votes to realise his long-time ambition to become speaker, which is a hugely important post in the US political system being in the line of succession to the White House after the vice-president.

However, the protracted battle to win over right wing rebels in his own party and the significant concessions he had to make to them along the way over recent days are likely to have serious consequences when it comes to governing over the next two years.

If it took four days for the Republican Party to elect its own leader in the House to become speaker, how difficult will it be for McCarthy to hold his conference together to pass crucial spending bills or raise the US debt ceiling next year?

After an impasse since last Tuesday when the new US Congress convened following the midterm elections in November a group of right wing members of his party had refused to back McCarthy.

This had essentially paralysed the House as members could not be sworn in or any legislation passed.

Eventually McCarthy reached a deal with some of the rebels before, in a late night session on Friday night, wearing down the hardliners who continued to oppose him. The final rebels eventually abstained to allow McCarthy to take the speaker’s gavel on the 15th ballot.

US media reported that former president Donald Trump had lobbied some of those who were still holding out against McCarthy to finally to allow the Californian politician to become speaker after it appeared events were drifting away from him.

McCarthy had initially criticised Trump over the attack by his supporters on the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021 – ironically two years ago to the day. However, within weeks McCarthy had travelled to meet Trump at his home in Florida to make peace.

Trump subsequently backed McCarthy for the speaker’s post. But some of Trump’s strongest allies were among the fiercest critics of McCarthy.

McCarthy’s problem in securing the speakership was exacerbated after Republicans fared worse in the midterm elections than had been forecast. Republicans ended up with a very slender majority, which meant McCarthy could afford to lose just four votes on his own side if he was to become speaker.

A small group on the right of the party were determined this would not happen or at least wanted to use the vote as an opportunity to secure political concessions.

Some were just personally opposed to McCarthy and viewed him as part of the political establishment.

Others were fiscal conservatives who wanted to use their leverage over the speaker’s vote to press for significant changes to the way politics is conducted in Washington such as giving individual politicians greater say over legislation as it makes its way through the House rather than this being largely determined by the party leadership.

The tensions within the Republican Party on whether McCarthy should become speaker, which had dragged on for four days, eventually appeared to boil over late on Friday night.

McCarthy had appeared confident earlier on Friday when the House reconvened that he would have the votes to win.

During the 14th vote about 11pm on the east coast, one of the leading rebels Lauren Boebert, who had said she would never back McCarthy, essentially abstained. This removed one obstacle to him securing the post.

But he still remained one vote short of what he needed to seal the deal.

Ultimately, McCarthy’s fate was left in the hands of one of his leading critics within his own party, Matt Gaetz of Florida.

Gaetz initially did not vote when his name was called. Instead, he waited until the end of the roll call to say “present” – essentially an abstention.

Republicans cheered, but it was not enough. McCarthy had needed a specific vote in his favour.

McCarthy, who had largely remained in his seat as the voting process had played out since Tuesday, approached Gaetz and Boebert who were seated behind him and appeared to be pleading with them to change their votes.

At one point, Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama, appeared to lunge at Gaetz, held back by one of his colleagues.

Gaetz refused to budge, and McCarthy’s allies moved to adjourn the House until Monday, deeply disappointed after a defeat they had not anticipated. But while the vote was being tallied, there appeared to be a breakthrough. Republicans quickly switched their votes to oppose the adjournment.

The House then moved on to a 15th speaker vote, which saw McCarthy finally get over the line when rebels who had voted for candidates other than McCarthy abstained.

With McCarthy now elected speaker attention is likely to turn to the nature of the deal he struck with his internal critics to secure their votes and the implications this may have on how the House does its business, and whether it can actually govern under the Republican majority over the next two years.

The full details of the concessions have not emerged but the indications are that the right wing will have more influence.

The right wing, according to some reports, will have key posts on a powerful committee that determines which legislation makes it to the floor of the House for a vote. There is talk of capping discretionary spending at 2022 levels, meaning cuts would have to be made in the years ahead.

The impact of this on key votes that will have to take place in the months ahead on government spending and on raising the US debt ceiling remains to be seen. However, more protracted political fighting seems inevitable.

The deal could also potentially hinder McCarthy’s own freedom to govern.

A single politician could, in future, move to oust the speaker, instead of the five McCarthy had initially offered as a compromise.

McCarthy’s allies had previously claimed that such a development would effectively leave the speaker as a hostage to the more extreme elements of the party who could move to overthrow him at any time if they did not get their way.

Shortly before 2am in Washington on Saturday morning the members of the House of Representatives were finally sworn in and it could begin its official work.

The deadlock was over but the political infighting in the 118th US Congress may just be beginning.