WASHINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) – Republican Kevin McCarthy was elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives early on Saturday, raising questions about the party’s ability to govern after making sweeping concessions to right-wing hardliners.
Matt Gates, a 57-year-old California representative, suffered a final humiliation when he withheld his vote near midnight on the 14th ballot, sparking a melee that required fellow Republican Mike Rogers to be physically pulled away.
McCarthy’s victory on the 15th ballot ended more than 160 years of deep congressional dysfunction. But it sharply illustrates the difficulties he faces in leading a narrow and deeply polarized majority.
In the end he won by a margin of 216-212. He was elected by less than half of the House members — not supporting McCarthy for president but voting for another contender — only because six members of his own party abstained.
When he took the mantle for the first time, President Joe Biden’s Democrats represented the end of BD’s hold on both houses of Congress.
“Our system is built on checks and balances. It’s time we provide a check and some balance to the president’s policies,” McCarthy said in his inaugural address, which laid out several priorities from spending cuts to immigration. Fighting culture wars wars.
McCarthy was elected after agreeing to hardliners’ demands that any lawmaker could call for his removal at any time. That would severely curtail the power he has when trying to legislate on critical issues, including funding the government, the country’s overturned debt ceiling and addressing other crises that may arise.
A weaker-than-expected performance by Republicans in the November midterm elections gave them a narrow 222-212 majority.
Those concessions, including sharp spending cuts and other curbs on McCarthy’s powers, could point to further turmoil in the coming months, especially as Congress must sign off on further increases to America’s $31.4 trillion borrowing authority.
Over the past decade, Republicans have repeatedly shut down much of the government and pushed the world’s largest borrower to the brink of default in attempts to extract steep spending cuts, usually without success.
Many hardliners have questioned McCarthy’s willingness to engage in such frivolity as Democrats negotiate with Biden, who controls the Senate. Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell have gotten angry in the past when they agreed to compromise deals.
Hardliners, including Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Chip Roy of Texas, said concessions from McCarthy would make it easier to pursue such tactics — or force another vote on McCarthy’s leadership if McCarthy doesn’t live up to their expectations.
“You have changes in how we’re going to spend and allocate money that are historically significant,” Perry said.
“We don’t want to pass clean debt ceilings and pay the bill without some countermeasures to control spending while Democrats control the White House and control the Senate.”
One of those Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, has warned that McCarthy’s concessions to “extremists” in his party could come back to haunt him, and that a Republican-controlled party could trigger a government shutdown or default. “With disastrous consequences.”
In stark contrast to the infighting among House Republicans, Biden and McConnell appeared in Kentucky on Wednesday to highlight investments in infrastructure.
McCarthy’s belated victory came on January 6, 2021, the day after the two-year anniversary of the attack on the US capital, when a violent mob stormed Congress in an attempt to overturn then-President Donald Trump’s election defeat.
This week’s 14 failed votes marked the highest number of ballots cast for speaker since 1859, in the tumultuous years before the Civil War.
McCarthy’s last bid for speaker, in 2015, crumbled in the face of right-wing opposition. Two previous Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, left the job after clashes with right-wing colleagues.
McCarthy now has the power to block Biden’s legislative agenda, force votes for Republican priorities on the economy, energy and immigration, and move forward with investigations of Biden, his administration and his family.
But the concessions he agreed to would have less power than McCarthy’s predecessor, Democrat Nancy Pelosi. That will make it harder for him to agree with Democrats in a divided Washington.
Allowing a member to call for a vote to remove the Speaker would give hardliners an extraordinary advantage.
The deal would reduce spending for the next fiscal year to last year’s level — a significant cut when inflation and population growth are taken into account.
That could face opposition from more centrist Republicans or those pushing for more military funding, especially as the U.S. spends billions of dollars helping Ukraine fend off Russian aggression.
Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican, said he was not concerned that the House would be effectively run by hardliners.
“It’s ambitious,” he told reporters. We still have ballots.
Reporting by David Morgan, Moira Warburton and Andy Sullivan; Additional reporting by Gram Slattery, Jason Lange and Makini Price, Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone, Cynthia Osterman, William Mallard and Daniel Wallis
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