(CNN) — Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz strode into House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy’s office on Monday night with a list of demands. Among them: The chairmanship of a key House Armed Services subcommittee.
McCarthy rejected the offer. That decision set in motion a chain of events that left Gaetz and McCarthy locked in open confrontation on the House floor late Friday night. Gaetz, McCarthy’s staunchest opponent, dramatically denied McCarthy the final vote he needed to become speaker — then Gaetz and the last holdouts abruptly changed course allowing McCarthy to win the speaker’s gavel on his 15th attempt.
Before the final vote, pandemonium erupted on the House floor after Gaetz waited until the very end of the 14th ballot to vote “present” when McCarthy needed one more “yes” vote. Stunned after believing he had the votes, McCarthy faced his most embarrassing defeat yet. McCarthy’s allies encircled Gaetz to try to find a way forward. McCarthy soon made a bee-line for discussion and started engaging Gaetz, too.
After McCarthy walked away from Gaetz, looking dejected, Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers moved toward the conversation and lunged at Gaetz, having to be physically restrained by Republican Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina. Rogers, a Republican from Alabama who earlier in the week warned the GOP dissidents they would lose their committee assignments, told Gaetz he would be “finished” for continuing to wreck the speaker’s vote.
Nearby, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia was trying to convince Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, another McCarthy holdout, to take her cell phone and speak to former President Donald Trump, who was on the line.
Finally, the House clerk announced for the 14th time that no one had the votes to be speaker. Republicans moved to adjourn the chamber until Monday. As the vote timer counted down, 218 Republicans had voted yes, a majority that would have sent McCarthy home for the weekend and left the House in paralysis at the hands of Gaetz and his allies.
But with less than a minute left to go in the vote, Gaetz moved toward the front of the chamber, grabbing a red index card to change his vote on adjournment. Gaetz walked toward McCarthy, and the two briefly exchanged words. McCarthy then raised his hand and yelled out, “One more!” as he triumphantly walked toward the front of the chamber to change his vote, too. It was the GOP leader’s final negotiation capping an emotional roller coaster over the course of four days as he was held hostage by a narrow faction of his conference. Dozens of Republicans followed McCarthy and Gaetz to defeat the adjournment measure, and McCarthy’s victory, at last, was at hand.
The six Republican holdouts all voted present on the 15th ballot, giving McCarthy a 216-212 victory to end the longest speaker’s race since 1859. Rep. Tom Emmer, one of McCarthy’s top deputies, went up and down the aisles telling Republicans on the House floor not to clap for Gaetz or Rep. Lauren Boebert when they announced their votes, like they had for other holdouts who had flipped to McCarthy earlier in the day.
Asked why he reversed course on McCarthy, Gaetz said, “I ran out of things I could even imagine to ask for.”
McCarthy expressed relief as he left the floor: “I’m glad it’s over.”
McCarthy denied Gaetz was offered the subcommittee gavel he had sought earlier in the week in exchange for his vote. “No one gets promised anything,” McCarthy said.
Dividing the ‘Never Kevin’ movement
The chaotic scramble to the speakership came after days of marathon negotiations that exposed deep divides within the GOP and threw into question their ability to govern effectively in the 118th Congress. But McCarthy’s victory after facing 20 defectors on Tuesday also highlighted the successful strategy concocted by McCarthy and his top lieutenants to defeat the self-proclaimed “Never Kevin” movement led by Gaetz.
McCarthy’s strategy led to a breakthrough over two votes Friday afternoon, when McCarthy flipped 14 Republicans who had voted against him following marathon talks over House rules — setting the stage for the 11th-hour chaos with the final six holdouts.
It’s too soon to say whether the four-day speaker drama will become little more than an historical footnote for the 118th Congress, or if it’s an early indicator of even more bruising fights to come. But the fight over the speaker’s gavel exposed the bitter fault lines bubbling up in the Republican Party for the better course of a decade that will hover over the House for the next two years.
McCarthy’s concessions to the GOP dissidents are significant and could ultimately cut his tenure as speaker short. Among the rules changes: McCarthy agreed to restore a rule allowing a single Republican member to call for a vote to depose him as speaker, the same rule that led to John Boehner’s decision to resign as speaker in 2015.
Still, McCarthy’s victory Friday now gives him the long-sought speaker’s gavel and the chance to lead a House that will quickly turn its focus to investigating President Joe Biden, his administration and his family. More challenging for McCarthy and his conference are the looming fights later this year over government spending and the debt ceiling, where McCarthy cut deals on spending during this week’s negotiations likely to be unacceptable both to Democrats and the White House as well as Senate Republicans.
This account of how McCarthy finally won the fifth longest speaker’s fight in history is based on dozens of interviews throughout the week as the drama played out on and off the House floor with the fate of McCarthy’s political career and the legislative body itself hanging in the balance.
‘We’re going to war’
The morning following McCarthy’s Monday meeting with Gaetz, things got even worse for the GOP leader.
In a tense meeting in the basement of the Capitol with the full House GOP Conference, McCarthy and Gaetz got into a screaming match. McCarthy called out his detractors for asking for personal favors, including Gaetz, whom he said informed him he didn’t care if Democrat Hakeem Jeffries was elected speaker so long as he didn’t get the job.
Afterward, the Florida Republican accused McCarthy of acting in bad faith by asking him for a list of demands — and then by later berating him over it.
“It was very unseemly,” Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina, one of the 20 who initially opposed McCarthy.
That meeting — where Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado called out “bulls**t” on McCarthy and where the GOP leader engaged in heated exchanges with Reps. Chip Roy of Texas and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania — set the stage for the furious four-day battle.
Afterward, McCarthy and his allies knew they had a problem. They saw his opposition growing amid anger over McCarthy’s threats and tough talk. So they began to work on a strategy: Take the temperature down and divide the opponents away from Gaetz and provide concessions to far-right members of the conference who want more say in the legislative process.
At noon, the House gaveled in the 118th Congress, and lawmakers swarmed the House floor, children in tow, for what was supposed to begin a day of pageantry. In a sign of the new Republican rules, the magnetometers installed by outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the wake of the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol were removed from the doors to the House floor.
The first order of business quickly revealed the depth of the GOP opposition to McCarthy’s speakership bid.
McCarthy needed 218 votes, a majority of the House, meaning he could only lose four of the 222 Republicans as long as all Democrats voted for Jeffries. The clerk called out the names of all 434 members to vote in alphabetical order. McCarthy was denied a majority before the House clerk was through the “C’s,” and 19 Republicans voted for someone other than McCarthy — leaving him 15 votes short.
Jeffries, the new Democratic leader, got the most votes with 212.
McCarthy’s camp hunkered down, preparing to go through multiple votes for speaker for the first time in a century. “We’re going to war,” a senior GOP source told CNN.
McCarthy’s opponents were just as dug in. “We will never cave,” said Rep. Bob Good of Virginia.
On the second ballot, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio — the Republican rabble-rouser turned McCarthy ally — rose to nominate McCarthy, after he had received six votes from the holdouts. Gaetz followed Jordan by nominating the Ohio Republican himself as a candidate. All 19 Republicans holdouts consolidated around Jordan, and the count ended in the same place as the first ballot.
Before the third vote, Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, who had voted for McCarthy on the first two ballots, told CNN that McCarthy failed to “close the deal.” When his name was called minutes later, Donalds announced he was voting for Jordan, McCarthy’s first defection.
The list of McCarthy’s opponents grew to 20 when the third vote was announced, and the House adjourned for the day.
‘This is our fight. This isn’t Trump’s’
After the Tuesday’s three failed votes, McCarthy had debated having another GOP conference meeting. But the California Republican was advised not to, worried it would not be productive and would lead to another heated venting session that was leaked to the press in real time.
Instead, McCarthy’s camp ultimately decided small meetings would be more fruitful after the two factions retreated to their corners. McCarthy made his own round of calls Tuesday evening, including to former President Donald Trump. Before leaving the Capitol, McCarthy claimed to reporters he believed he was “not that far away” from the votes he needed.
McCarthy said that the former president “reiterated support” for his speaker bid.
The day before the vote for speaker, the former president had declined to issue a statement reiterating his endorsement of McCarthy despite a behind-the-scenes effort from several McCarthy allies to get Trump to do so.
Finally, on Wednesday morning, Trump did release a statement on his social media site urging the House GOP to “VOTE FOR KEVIN.”
The former president’s message had little effect.
“I disagree with Trump. This is our fight. This isn’t Trump’s,” said South Carolina GOP Rep. Ralph Norman, one of the McCarthy dissenters.
Trump continued to keep the House drama at arms’ length until Friday, when he made calls to Gaetz and Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona while they were on the House floor. After McCarthy won the speakership, Trump congratulated him on his social media site.
‘It’s embarrassing for the country’
When the House gaveled back into session Wednesday, McCarthy lacked the votes to adjourn the session, as some of his allies had wanted in order to keep negotiating. So McCarthy headed toward a fourth ballot.
Jordan urged McCarthy’s opponents not to nominate him again. Instead, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas stood instead to nominate Donalds — the very Republican who had defected the day prior.
While the McCarthy opponents did not grow their ranks — a sigh of relief for McCarthy — the California Republican still lost one vote: Rep. Victoria Spartz, an Indiana Republican, who voted present. Spartz told reporters her vote was intended to encourage the two sides to get back to the negotiating table.
There were other signs that some of McCarthy’s backers weren’t willing to stick by him forever. Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican and House Freedom Caucus member, told CNN that “at some point” McCarthy needed to step aside and let now-Majority Leader Steve Scalise run. “What I’ve asked is that if Kevin can’t get there, that he step aside and give Steve a chance to do it,” Buck said.
The atmosphere on the House floor on Wednesday was buzzing by the second vote. While Tuesday’s session was relatively calm, the opposing factions gathered on the floor to hold talks in real time in between the speaker votes.
At the same time the House was taking vote after vote for speaker, Biden was speaking in Kentucky at an event with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell promoting the 2021 infrastructure bill McConnell helped pass. Biden’s speech gave the White House — and Senate Republicans — a split screen that laid bare the vast contrast with the House Republican infighting.
“It’s embarrassing for the country,” Biden said of the House chaos.
‘Boats are burned’
After the sixth vote ended with an identical outcome as the fifth, the House adjourned for several hours. The break gave the two sides more time to negotiate, and some of the hardliners said they saw some progress.
A group of Republicans decamped to the office of Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, the new House majority whip. Bishop said things had changed over the past couple of hours and he was “encouraged” by the talks.
But it wasn’t clear that the meeting would lead to a breakthrough. Gaetz pledged that the McCarthy dissenters could continue to hold votes “until the cherry blossoms fall off the trees.” Boebert said the “boats are burned” when it comes to any future negotiations with McCarthy.
When the House gaveled back into session, Republicans moved to adjourn for the night rather than take another failed speaker vote. GOP leaders were hopeful that the ongoing talks would convince McCarthy’s opponents to vote for adjournment, but with just four votes to spare, the roll-call vote was tight.
All Democrats and four McCarthy opponents voted against adjourning, and the motion was in danger of failing — which would have forced the House to keep voting for speaker. But two Democrats weren’t in attendance, and the House clerk gaveled an end to the vote, 216 to 214.
McCarthy had at least one more day to try to get his detractors to yes.
‘We’re making some progress’
On Wednesday evening, McCarthy agreed to several key concessions to try to flip at least some of his opponents.
McCarthy had been in talks with Roy, who told GOP leaders he thought he could get 10 holdouts to come along with him. McCarthy also met separately Wednesday evening with freshman members who voted against him.
In perhaps the biggest concession, McCarthy agreed to allow just one member to call for a vote to oust a sitting speaker. McCarthy had initially proposed a five-member threshold, down from current conference rules that require half of the GOP to call for such a vote.
McCarthy also pledged to allow more members of the Freedom Caucus to serve on the Rules Committee and to hold votes for bills that were priorities for the holdouts, including on border security and term limits.
In another sign of a breakthrough, a McCarthy-aligned super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, agreed to not get involved in open primaries in safe seats — one of the demands conservatives had asked for but McCarthy had resisted.
“I think we’re making progress,” McCarthy said Thursday morning as he arrived at the Capitol for a third day of votes.
The GOP dissidents also sounded a positive note. “We’re making some progress,” Bishop told CNN as he was walking into a meeting Thursday morning with other GOP hardliners.
‘If this takes a little longer, that’s OK’
Despite the optimistic chatter Thursday morning, the House gaveled into session at noon without a deal. And while McCarthy’s allies had considered trying to postpone additional votes so a deal could be finalized, McCarthy lacked the votes to adjourn.
Instead, lawmakers followed two tracks into the evening: taking vote after vote on the House floor for speaker, while negotiations continued behind closed doors.
The outcome did not change with each floor vote. While the GOP holdouts shifted who received their anti-McCarthy votes — Boebert nominated Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma on vote No. 9, and Gaetz nominated Trump on the 11th ballot — none shifted to McCarthy’s side.
Twenty-one Republicans didn’t support McCarthy on ballot number seven. Same with eight, nine, 10 and 11.
Behind the scenes, however, the holdouts who weren’t in the “never Kevin” camp continued talking with McCarthy and his allies, inching closer to a deal.
By the early evening Thursday, there was an offer “on paper.” Three of the key negotiators — Emmer, Roy and Donalds — huddled with McCarthy in his ceremonial office, following a session in Emmer’s office for one group to review the written agreement to break the stalemate. Another group huddled in the member’s dining room on the first floor of the Capitol to discuss a separate part of the written deal.
“We’re still working through it,” Roy said leaving Emmer’s office.
“Each meeting is more positive than the last. And that’s a very nice sign,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, a key negotiator on McCarthy’s side, told reporters.
The discussions in Emmer’s office continued late into the evening Thursday in an attempt to get to yes. Chipotle was wheeled in for dinner.
One factor complicating the talks was a handful Republicans were expected to leave Washington due to various family issues. Buck left Thursday afternoon for a planned medical procedure. Rep. Wesley Hunt flew back to Texas to be with his wife and newborn, who had to spend some time in the neonatal intensive care unit.
On Friday morning, House Democrats marked the second anniversary of the January 6, 2021, attack on the steps of the Capitol. Just one Republican attended: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.
Republicans huddled once again as a conference for the first time since the heated Tuesday meeting. This time, McCarthy organized a conference call, which could be more easily managed, rather than an in-person session. On the call, McCarthy told his conference that a deal had not yet been finalized but that progress had been made. He specifically thanked Roy, a key holdout, for his role.
Before the House gaveled back into session, McCarthy predicted he would win over some holdovers, though there were still reasons for him to be pessimistic the finish line was in sight.
“I’ll be voting for Byron Donalds,” Norman told CNN on his way to the floor, saying he was still reviewing the emerging agreement.
The 12th vote for speaker began the same as the 11 before it. Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona was the first Republican to vote against McCarthy. Then Bishop, the next McCarthy opponent in the roll call, rose to cast his vote.
“McCarthy,” Bishop said, prompting his fellow Republicans to leap from their seats with a standing ovation.
Freshman Rep. John Brecheen of Oklahoma was the next to flip, prompting another round of Republican cheers. By the end of the roll call, 14 holdouts, including Norman, had called McCarthy’s name. He was still short of the votes he needed for speaker, but the tide had turned. Only seven McCarthy opponents remained.
On the 13th vote, the GOP leader peeled off one more detractor, Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland. The House voted to adjourn until 10 p.m. ET — providing time both for the two missing McCarthy supporters time to return to Washington and for McCarthy’s allies to turn up the heat on the remaining holdouts.
McCarthy needed two more votes. McCarthy and his allies focused on Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana and freshman Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona either to support McCarthy or vote present, lowering the vote threshold to win a majority.
There were multiple avenues to a majority and the speakership for McCarthy. The simplest path was to peel off two more votes and hit 218. But if McCarthy’s remaining GOP opponents would not vote for him, the California could still obtain a majority if three of the six detractors voted “present.” In addition to Rosendale and Crane, McCarthy’s allies looked to Boebert as a potential present vote.
Gaetz and Boebert appeared to acknowledge the end of the speaker fight was near before the House returned to session, sitting for a joint interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity and expressing vague optimisms for the rules changes the holdouts had won.
But as the House gaveled back into session, Gaetz went to McCarthy’s senior aide and asked whether the House could adjourn until Monday. Gaetz offer was rejected, leading to the final chaos over the course of the 14th and 15th votes for speaker.
Early Saturday morning, following 14 losses and more than 84 hours after the beginning of the 118th Congress, the House clerk finally announced McCarthy was elected House speaker.
Before the chaos over the final vote, McCarthy earlier Friday had sounded an optimistic note that the lengthy fight over the gavel would actually help Republicans. “So this is the great part. Because it took this long, now we’ve learned how to govern,” McCarthy said. “So now we’ll be able to get the job done.”
Gaetz, however, suggested the historic fight would have a different impact on McCarthy’s speakership. Due to the concessions, Gaetz argued, McCarthy will be governing in a “straitjacket.”