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McCarthy wins speakership in 15th round after tense standoff; agrees to ‘institutional rule changes’

In an interview, Utah Rep. Burgess Owens said rules agreement will lead to more debate, transparency and bipartisanship.

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Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., smiles after winning the 15th vote in the House chamber as the House enters the fifth day trying to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, early Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., smiles after winning the 15th vote in the House chamber as the House enters the fifth day trying to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, early Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California clinched victory on the 15th ballot to become House speaker just after midnight Saturday morning in the nations’ Capitol. Republican holdouts say they’ve negotiated a rules package that will bring “institutional change” to Congress.

McCarthy finally won on a 216-212 vote, with six members voting present. For four days it appeared McCarthy may not be able to cross the finish line, but his opponents never coalesced around an alternative candidate. Eventually, McCarthy was able to win enough votes by making major concessions, including some that would reduce his power as speaker.

The final vote early Saturday came after several tense moments on the floor between McCarthy and dissenting lawmakers, and between McCarthy’s supporters and his opponents.

Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., left, pulls Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., back as they talk with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and other during the 14th round of voting for speaker as the House meets for the fourth day to try and elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. At right is Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.

Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., left, pulls Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., back as they talk with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and other during the 14th round of voting for speaker as the House meets for the fourth day to try and elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. At right is Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

In a closely divided House, several Republican members withheld their support from McCarthy over the course of 14 ballots, saying they wanted to fix a “broken” legislative process. Multiple-day, closed door negotiations between the two quarreling intra-party factions eventually produced a rules package agreement a majority of the GOP conference could support.

The proposed rule changes include restoring the one-member threshold to trigger a vacate the chair motion, a 72-hour publication of bills before votes, as well as sitting more conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus on the rules committee, among others.

Republicans applauded changes that are likely to take power away from the speaker’s office and give it to rank and file members. “Having too much power in the hands of the Speaker of the House has been detrimental to the legislative process,” Florida Republican Rep. Byron Donalds told the press. The debate held over the last several days will give members the ability to have an open and deliberative process that is more reflective of democracy, he said.

Moments before going to cast his final votes, Utah Republican Congressman Burgess Owens told the Deseret News that he felt the biggest win was the opening up of the amendment process. “We came here to give voice to the people we represent, but we couldn’t do that under Democrat leadership,” he said. “Being able to offer amendments means we can be part of the process all the way through.”

A floor amendment vote hasn’t been allowed in the House since 2016. Owens said under previous rules, leadership would dictate the crafting of all legislation, effectively giving a small group of people total control.

“Think about how crazy that is. It is not at all the equal representation we promise the people,” he said.

Under the new open amendment rules, Owens predicts Republicans and Democrats will be excited to exercise their legislative muscles once again. Americans “are going to see a lot more conversations, and I have a feeling we might even have more bipartisanship,” he said. “When members can take control of their own ideas and legislation... it will encourage a way of working together that we haven’t see in the past. So I’m pretty excited about that.”

Owens said the agreement made between the two sides will lead to a better legislative process. Some members, he said, felt jaded by the way leadership had treated them in the past — a view the congressman said was justified. But Owens was impressed with McCarthy’s ability to bring the conference together in agreement.

But for a moment Friday night, it looked like McCarthy would once again walk away without clinching the speaker’s gavel.

There was tension on the floor as McCarthy failed to win on the 14th ballot on a 216-212 vote, with four representatives voting for other candidates – including Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona – and two members voting present.

Lawmakers, including McCarthy, were visibly frustrated after the vote. He approached dissenters Matt Gaetz of Florida and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, where they appeared to have a heated argument. After their brief conversation, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama approached Gaetz and appeared to lunge at him. He had to be restrained by another member, and there were calls for decorum.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., talks to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., right, after Gaetz voted “present” in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., talks to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., right, after Gaetz voted “present” in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

It appeared like the House would adjourn until midday on Monday, but in the final moments before the vote to adjourn closed, Gaetz approached McCarthy and apparently told him to call for another vote. McCarthy and other Republican leaders quickly changed their vote to adjourn from yea to nay, and then the 15th vote was called.

Gaetz, Biggs and other holdouts voted present instead of for other candidates, making it possible for McCarthy to squeak through.

McCarthy went into Friday 20 votes short, but managed to gain 13 votes on the 12th and 13th ballots. The shift came after he made significant concessions. But the final votes didn’t materialize until just after midnight on Saturday.

Now that the race for speaker is over, it remains to be seen if Republicans will come together to try to pursue their agenda, which they’ve said will include several congressional investigations and a pledge to secure the border.

Owens said that the last few days demonstrated that the GOP’s slim majority will require Republicans to be transparent about their positions and trust one another in order to push common goals across the finish line.

He said no one worked as hard as McCarthy and that he will be instrumental in ensuring everyone is heard.

If there’s ever a person who can make it work, he said, “it’ll be Speaker Kevin McCarthy.”