(WASHINGTON) — GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday became just the second speaker in history to be subjected to an effort by rank-and-file lawmakers to take away his gavel — and the first to have it stripped away.
McCarthy faced a so-called motion to vacate from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who put forth the motion after McCarthy, his allies and Democrats passed a stopgap funding bill to keep the federal government open — legislation that Republican hard-liners said greenlit too much spending.
The intraparty drama underscored the difficulty of leading a raucous caucus in a chamber Republicans control by only five seats — a balancing act that was always anticipated to come to a head.
The California Republican had to go through 15 rounds of voting in January just to clinch the gavel in the first place, his path blocked largely by many of the same rebels who threatened his speakership.
McCarthy’s rise from California state politics to the leader of his House conference was been fueled less by less signature policy proposals than relationship-building and a longtime focus on the success of his other members, including a key role in the 2010 midterms.
A Bakersfield native, he has said his path toward politics was influenced by a stroke of luck. As a young man, he won $5,000 after playing the lottery with a friend, which he parlayed, along with money from flipping cars, into a business selling sandwiches.
“I’d gotten interested in politics at the deli,” he told the Los Angeles Times for a profile in 2003.
On the side, he began to cut his teeth among California Republicans, first serving as a staffer to then-Rep. Bill Thomas before chairing the California Young Republicans and then the Young Republican National Federation.
He was ultimately elected to the California state Assembly in 2002 and became the GOP floor leader in 2003. During his time in the state legislature, McCarthy focused on economic issues like reducing the state budget and revamping the state workers’ compensation system, according to his biography.
The Los Angeles Times profile described him as a “political junkie” and a “pragmatist, not a policy purist.” After taking over as party chief in the state Assembly, he said he preferred not to be known as “minority leader” — which could sound irrelevant in a state where Republicans have long struggled for power.
McCarthy went on to be elected to the House in 2007 to fill the seat left vacant when Thomas, his old boss, retired. He, along with former Reps. Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Paul Ryan, R-Wis., were dubbed the “young guns,” the next generation of conservative leadership. In 2010, the trio published a book by the same name to outline a “new direction for the Republican Party.”
They backed spending cuts and smaller government, seeking to reform Washington, they said.
“Through campaign support for those who believe in private-sector job creation, maximized individual freedom and a better America for our children, the Young Guns are changing the face of the Republican Party and giving Americans a road map to get back to the American dream,” a summary for their book said.
In a foreword by journalist Fred Barnes, McCarthy was dubbed the “strategist” of the trio, someone who was “fixated on how to win more elections, more often.”
McCarthy is now the only one of the three still in Congress. Cantor rose to House majority leader before losing a primary in 2014 to a more conservative candidate. And Ryan retired in 2019 after a stint as speaker — and as the 2012 Republican nice-presidential nominee — after repeated conflicts with lawmakers aligned with the GOP’s right flank.
McCarthy’s road has not always been smooth either, seeing his speakership ambitions suddenly evaporate in late 2015 after resistance from the same kind of conservatives who say they will block his path during Tuesday’s speaker vote.
Recovery from first speakership bid and ties to Trump
After his failure to clinch the speakership seven years ago, McCarthy focused on winning over his populist detractors and endearing himself to Donald Trump, who over that same period has become their party’s standard-bearer.
While Trump welcomed McCarthy pulling out of the House speaker’s race in 2015 — when McCarthy realized his approximately 75% support among the conference was well short of the votes needed, according to ABC News reporting — the former president has publicly backed McCarthy’s quest for gavel this time around.
Among other critics McCarthy reached out to were Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a former House Freedom Caucus chairman who helped block McCarthy’s first speakership bid, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a provocative lawmaker just elected to her second term who was booted from her committee perches by Democrats and some Republicans over her history of incendiary statements.
McCarthy, during his time as the House GOP leader, forged an alliance with Jordan by assigning him to plum committees, including over the past few years the panels on the intelligence community, the judiciary and oversight and reform. He’s similarly said he intends to assign Greene to certain committees, though he hasn’t yet said which ones. She has said she wants seats on oversight and overseeing the judiciary.
McCarthy has also consistently been one of House Republicans’ best fundraisers, bringing in millions for lawmakers coast to coast.
“I think he’s well situated to win the speakership and have it for the term. I don’t think it’ll be difficult. He has raised a record revenue for the party. He is great at fundraising. He’s been all over the country,” one House Republican told ABC News in October. “He’s earned it.”
Trump said much the same in December, telling Breitbart: “Kevin has worked very hard. He is just — it’s been exhausting. If you think, he’s been all over. I think he deserves the shot. Hopefully he’s going to be very strong and going to be very good and he’s going to do what everybody wants.”
McCarthy and Trump had a close working relationship during the former president’s administration, with Trump dubbing the Californian “my Kevin.”
Their bond suffered a fracture after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — but only temporarily.
“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said on the House floor later in January 2021. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump.”
Less than a month after the Capitol attack, McCarthy traveled down to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to discuss efforts to retake the House in 2022.
“Today, President Trump committed to helping elect Republicans in the House and Senate in 2022. A Republican majority will listen to our fellow Americans and solve the challenges facing our nation,” he said in a statement at the time. “A united conservative movement will strengthen the bonds of our citizens and uphold the freedoms our country was founded on.”
What McCarthy has said he’d do as speaker
McCarthy forecasted a strong focus on investigative efforts into the Biden administration under a GOP House majority, laying out a sprawling target of top staffers and leaving little room for potential legislative negotiations.
McCarthy had warned Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas of new investigations into his management of the southern border if he does not resign, saying that the probes could “determine whether we can begin an impeachment inquiry.”
The GOP leader also singled out Attorney General Merrick Garland after the FBI’s raid of Mar-a-Lago over Trump’s storing of government documents, warning Garland to “preserve your documents and clear your calendar” and claiming that “the Department of Justice has reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization.”
McCarthy has also told the special House panel probing Jan. 6 to preserve its documents, raising speculation that he could accede to calls from some Republicans to investigate the investigators.
He also vowed to kick Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., off at least some of their committees — citing objections to their past behavior that he has said makes them unfit for those roles. Democrats have called that a retaliatory move after Greene was stripped of her posts.
Legislatively, McCarthy promised to serve as a bulwark against the Biden administration’s policies. He said he would use negotiations over the debt ceiling to extract spending cuts from Democrats, a high-stake strategy that, in the worst outcome, would risk a historic default on the U.S.’s loans.
Before the November midterms, he unveiled a “Commitment to America” with four overarching goals: creating “an economy that’s strong,” “a nation that’s safe,” “a future that’s built on freedom” and “a government that’s accountable.” He focused in part on inflation and public safety, though the plan was light on policy specifics.
On foreign issues, McCarthy has said he wanted more oversight of the spending to support Ukraine as it defends against Russia’s nearly year-old invasion — a position that puts him between other Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell and those in his House conference who are skeptical of Ukraine aid.
The heavy emphasis on oversight has sparked questions over how much legislative cooperation there could be between a House led by McCarthy and the White House.
“In this election, voters spoke clearly about their concerns: the need to lower costs, protect the right to choose, and preserve our democracy,” Biden said in a statement after the midterms, in which Democrats expanded their Senate majority while narrowly losing the House. “I will work with anyone — Republican or Democrat — willing to work with me to deliver results for them.”
McCarthy, meanwhile, said in November that Biden “got an indication that it’s going to be different” once Democrats no longer hold both chambers of Congress.
“America likes a check and balance,” he said.
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