Kevin McCarthy voted U.S. House Speaker after 15 ballots and final, dramatic confrontation

Republican Kevin McCarthy was elected U.S. House Speaker on a historic post-midnight 15th ballot early Saturday, overcoming holdouts from his own ranks and floor tensions boiling over after a chaotic week that tested the new Republican majority's ability to govern.

It took 15 ballots, various concessions for Republican leader to clinch enough votes

A person is seen clapping.
Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California celebrates after being elected U.S. House Speaker in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., early Saturday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Republican Kevin McCarthy was elected U.S. House Speaker on a historic post-midnight 15th ballot early Saturday, overcoming holdouts from his own ranks and floor tensions that boiled over after a chaotic week that tested the new Republican majority's ability to govern.

"My father always told me, it's not how you start, it's how you finish," McCarthy told cheering fellow Republicans.

Eager to confront U.S. President Joe Biden and the Democrats, he promised subpoenas and investigations. "Now the hard work begins," the California Republican declared. He credited former president Donald Trump for standing with him and for making late calls "helping get those final votes."

Republicans roared in celebration when his victory was announced, chanting "USA! USA!"

Finally elected, McCarthy took the oath of office, and the House of Representatives was finally able to swear in newly elected lawmakers who had been waiting all week for the chamber to formally open and the 2023-24 session to begin.

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"As Speaker of the House, my ultimate responsibility is not to my party, my conference or even our Congress. My responsibility, our responsibility, is to our country," he said after accepting the gavel.

After four days of gruelling ballots, McCarthy flipped more than a dozen conservative holdouts to become supporters, including the chair of the chamber's Freedom Caucus.

Drama on the House floor

He fell one vote short on the 14th ballot, as Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida withheld support and voted "present," and the chamber became raucous and unruly.

McCarthy, 57, strode to the back of the chamber to confront Gaetz, who was sitting with Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert and other holdouts. Fingers were pointed, words exchanged and violence was apparently just averted.

A person is held back by another during a confrontation.
Richard Hudson, left, a Republican from North Carolina, pulls back Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama, as they talk with Republican Matt Gaetz of Florida (off camera) and others during the 14th round of voting on Friday. At right is Republican Patrick McHenry of North Carolina. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

McCarthy then slowly walked back down the aisle, alone, head tilted to the ground. But he turned back around when he heard a scuffle behind him. Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican ally of McCarthy, had angrily confronted Gaetz, telling him he would regret his decision.

Lawmakers on the floor yelled in disbelief — with one shouting "stay civil!" — as another Republican, Rep. Richard Hudson, physically pulled back Rogers when he approached Gaetz.

Order restored, the Republicans fell in line to give McCarthy the post he had fought so hard to gain, House Speaker, second in the line of succession to the presidency.

Two people have a tense, close conversation.
McCarthy, centre right, speaks to Gaetz in the House chamber on Friday. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

The few remaining Republican holdouts began voting present, lowering the threshold of support he needed to win. It was the end of a bitter standoff that had shown the strengths and fragility of American democracy.

The tally was 216-212, with Democrats voting for leader Hakeem Jeffries, and six Republican holdouts to McCarthy simply voting present.

The night's stunning turn of events came after McCarthy agreed to many of the detractors' demands — including the reinstatement of a long-standing House rule that would allow any single member to call a vote to oust the Speaker from office.

Even as McCarthy secured the votes he needs, he will emerge as a weakened Speaker, having given away some powers and constantly under the threat of being booted by his detractors.

But he could also be emboldened as a survivor of one of the more brutal fights for the gavel in U.S. history. Not since the Civil War era has a Speaker's vote dragged through so many rounds of voting.

Anniversary of Jan. 6 attack

The showdown that has stymied the new Congress came against the backdrop of the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, which shook the country when a mob of Trump's supporters tried to stop Congress from certifying Biden's victory over the Republicans in the 2020 presidential election.

At a Capitol event on Friday, some lawmakers, all but one of them Democrats, observed a moment of silence and praised officers who helped protect Congress on that day. And at the White House, Biden handed out medals to officers and others who fought the attackers.

"America is a land of laws, not chaos," he said.

Some holdouts give in

At the afternoon Speaker's vote, a number of Republicans tiring of the spectacle temporarily walked out when one of McCarthy's most ardent challengers, Gaetz, railed against the Republican leader.

Contours of a deal with conservative holdouts who had been blocking McCarthy's rise had emerged the night before and took hold after four dismal days and 14 failed votes in an intraparty standoff unseen in modern times.

One significant former holdout — Republican Scott Perry, chair of the conservative Freedom Caucus, who had been a leader of Trump's efforts to challenge the 2020 election — tweeted after his switched vote for McCarthy, "We're at a turning point."

Another Republican holdout, Byron Donalds of Florida, who was repeatedly nominated as an alternative candidate for Speaker, switched on Friday, too, voting for McCarthy.

Trump may have played a role in swaying some holdouts — calling into a meeting of Republican freshmen the night before, and calling other members ahead of voting. He had urged Republicans to wrap up their public dispute.

As Republican Mike Garcia nominated McCarthy on Friday, he also thanked the U.S. Capitol Police, who were given a standing ovation for protecting lawmakers and the legislative seat of democracy on Jan. 6, 2021.

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But in nominating the Democratic leader Jeffries, Democrat Jim Clyburn recalled the horror of that day and told his colleagues, "The eyes of the country are on us today."

Electing a Speaker is normally an easy, joyous task for a party that has just won majority control. But not this time: About 200 Republicans were stymied by 20 far-right colleagues who said McCarthy was not conservative enough.

Late arrivals cast supporting votes 

The House adjourned on Friday until late in the night, giving time for last-minute negotiations and allowing two absent Republican colleagues to return to Washington.

Newly elected Wesley Hunt of Texas arrived to vote for McCarthy — to applause, days after his wife had given birth — as did Ken Buck of Colorado.

Two men grasp hands in greeting each other.
McCarthy of California greets Rep. Wesley Hunt of Texas during the 14th round of voting for House Speaker on Friday. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

The disorganized start to the new Congress pointed to difficulties ahead with Republicans now in control of the House, much the way that some past Republican Speakers, including John Boehner, had trouble leading a rebellious right flank. The result: government shutdowns, standoffs and Boehner's early retirement when conservatives threatened to oust him.

The agreement McCarthy presented to the holdouts from the Freedom Caucus and others centres around rules changes they have been seeking for months. Those changes would shrink the power of the Speaker's office and give rank-and-file lawmakers more influence in drafting and passing legislation.

At the core of the emerging deal was the reinstatement of a House rule that would allow a single lawmaker to make a motion to "vacate the chair," essentially calling a vote to oust the Speaker.

McCarthy had resisted allowing a return to the long-standing rule that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi had done away with, because it had been held over the head of Boehner. But it appears McCarthy had no other choice.

A person gives a thumbs up while holding a piece of paper.
Republican Rep. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin holds up the tally sheet in the House chamber early Saturday. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Other wins for the holdouts are more obscure and include provisions in the proposed deal to expand the number of seats available on the House rules committee; to mandate 72 hours for bills to be posted before votes; and to promise to try for a constitutional amendment that would impose federal limits on the number of terms a person could serve in the House and Senate.

Before Friday's ballots, Democratic leader Jeffries of New York had won the most votes on every ballot but also remained short of a majority. McCarthy had run second, gaining no ground.

The longest fight for the gavel started in late 1855 and dragged on for two months, with 133 ballots, during debates over slavery in the run-up to the Civil War.