McConnell, McCarthy finally jell with debt limit fight 

The relationship between Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) jelled this month as they worked together on a debt ceiling deal.

McConnell played an instrumental role as adviser to McCarthy and President Biden during months of stalemate, when the president refused to negotiate directly with the Speaker. 

The veteran Kentucky deal-maker helped break the impasse when he called Biden directly after a May 9 meeting of the top four congressional leaders and informed the president bluntly that he needed to cut a deal with McCarthy, according to a person familiar with the conversation. 

“There was a lot of back-channel communication, and I think what Speaker McCarthy asked for and what he got was the support from the Republicans over here, which produced some leverage. Every time Biden said he wasn’t going to negotiate or it was going to be clean debt ceiling or nothing, the fact that [Senate Republicans] also said ‘no debt ceiling’ strengthened his hand,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell’s leadership team.  

McCarthy also won plaudits from McConnell and other GOP senators by winning passage in April of a GOP plan to raise the debt ceiling and cut $4.8 trillion from the deficit.

“I was very pleasantly surprised because we saw the Speaker’s election, and it wasn’t exactly a well-oiled machine,” said Cornyn, referring to the 15 votes McCarthy needed to win election as House Speaker.

McCarthy’s struggles prompted worries in the Senate that he would have a tough time passing legislation. Those doubts were a major factor in the decision by some GOP senators to support the $1.7 trillion omnibus package McConnell negotiated with Biden and congressional Democrats at the end of 2022. Senators feared McCarthy wouldn’t be able to move spending bills if they got punted into this year. 

The lack of trust was so severe that McCarthy met with Senate Republicans in the Senate’s famed Mansfield Room on Dec. 21 to plead with them to have faith in his ability to lead.  

“He talked about how we need to work better together than we have in the past,” then-Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told reporters after the meeting. 

McConnell played a major role in unifying the Senate GOP conference behind McCarthy as their lead negotiator on the debt limit, despite those doubts.

After Biden invited McCarthy, McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) to the White House for a meeting that made little progress, McConnell called the president to deliver a blunt message.   

He told Biden he needed to “shrink the room” and had to work with McCarthy directly, according to an Associated Press report that was confirmed by a person familiar with the conversation. He made it clear he would not intervene to hash out a last-minute deal like he did in 2011.  

Cornyn said House passage of the GOP debt-limit plan caught Biden off guard.

“Because he was able to keep his troops together, I think that stunned Biden folks because they thought [House Republicans] were going to collapse and be unsuccessful,” he said. 

Senate Republicans and GOP aides believe the rapport that McCarthy and McConnell developed will pay dividends going forward as they tackle other tough issues, like avoiding a government shutdown and providing more military and economic aid for Ukraine.   

Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who advised McConnell’s political campaigns, said the teamwork developed during the debt limit fight was “quite important and shows the strategic awareness of both men.” 

“The role he played was an adviser to both Biden and McCarthy and the advice was very simple, and he had been giving it publicly: These two guys are going to have to cut a deal,” Jennings said.  

“McConnell was the clear-eyed person here. ... I think this was a great moment for Republican Party unity,” he added.  

McConnell for years was the top Republican in Washington, but now he is ceding more of the spotlight to McCarthy, who had little leverage when he was in the House minority.

The two split publicly over last year’s omnibus spending package, which McConnell backed as a win for the Defense Department. McCarthy opposed it and even asked Senate Republicans to block it to give the incoming House GOP majority a chance to renegotiate the spending levels.  

Aides said they met regularly throughout 2021 and 2022, but McConnell and McCarthy rarely appeared together in public. 

Each leader has a very different relationship with former President Donald Trump.  

McConnell excoriated Trump on the Senate floor after his 2021 impeachment trial for fanning unsubstantiated claims that Biden won the 2020 presidential election because of widespread fraud.  

He said the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was spurred by “the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole” that Trump “kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.”  

McCarthy, by contrast, joined a majority of the House Republican conference in voting on Jan. 6 to sustain objections to the certification of the 2020 election.  

They also split over a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package Biden signed into law in November 2021. 

McConnell hailed the law as a major win for his home state, which is set to receive more than $2.2 billion for its transportation needs, while McCarthy whipped his House GOP colleagues to oppose it.  

And while McConnell voted for a bipartisan bill to address gun violence after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and a bipartisan bill to invest tens of billions of dollars in the domestic semi-conductor manufacturing industry, McCarthy voted against both of them.  

McCarthy panned the Chips and Science Act as a “$280 billion blank check” to the semiconductor industry.  

Those votes fueled concerns among Senate Republicans about McCarthy’s willingness to stand up to conservatives in his conference.  

Asked about those doubts, Jennings observed: “The House Republicans are a diverse and rowdy bunch.” 

“Were there questions about how they would all end up jelling and working together? Sure. That’s natural,” he said. “I think there was some basic wondering. … I don’t think it’s fair to couch it as, ‘Oh everybody thought McCarthy was weak or whatever.’ I think that’s what the punditry was."  

Five dramatic, colorful moments from McCarthy’s Speakership fight

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was elected Speaker of the House early Saturday morning, after weeks of haggling and a historic 15 roll call votes on the floor.

The lengthy Speakership fight — the first in a century to go past one ballot — played out largely in front of the public, as members repeatedly voted and sometimes negotiated on the floor of the House before C-SPAN’s cameras.

The battle for Speaker, particularly its culmination on Friday night and Saturday morning, produced a number of memorable moments. Here are five of the most dramatic and colorful:

Republicans rush back to Washington

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) embraces Rep.-elect Wesley Hunt (R-Texas)

Two Republican congressmen — Reps. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Wesley Hunt (R-Texas) — rushed back to the Capitol on Friday to vote for McCarthy.

Buck had said he would return for Friday evening votes after being gone during the day for a “non-emergency medical procedure” he had to undergo back in his home state.

But Hunt had to change his plans. He returned home to Texas Friday morning to spend time with his wife and newborn son, who was born prematurely on Monday and spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“Willie needs his father and Emily needs her husband,” Hunt said in a tweet. “Today, I’ll be returning home to hold my son and be at my wife’s side. It’s my intention to get back into the fight as soon as possible.”

Both were McCarthy supporters and McCarthy's Speaker math meant he needed both of their votes to prevail.

Hunt flew back to Washington later Friday and was in the chamber in time to vote the first time his name was called, while Buck arrived in time to vote when they circled back to his name.

Both received a round of applause from their Republican colleagues.

Lawmaker physically restrained by colleague

Rep. Michael D. Rogers (R-Ala.) is taken away form Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.)

Perhaps the more tense — and chaotic — moment of the night came after McCarthy lost his 14th Speakership vote, one Republicans were confident would be their last.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) was among the last lawmakers to vote and because only one of the other five holdout Republicans — Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) — had changed their vote to "present," a "present" vote from Gaetz wouldn't be enough to put McCarthy over the finish. McCarthy needed an affirmative vote from the Florida Republican.

Gaetz voted "present."

With tensions rising, a heated argument broke out between Gaetz and several McCarthy backers and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) appeared to take a step toward Gaetz before he was physically pulled back by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), eliciting gasps in the chamber.

Greene gets Trump on the line

As chaos ensued between then 14th and 15th votes, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) had President Trump on the phone in an effort to whip the final votes for McCarthy.

A widely-circulated photo from Friday night showed Greene holding up her phone to Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), one the last six Republican holdouts. Rosendale appeared to refuse the phone call, whose caller ID read “DT.”

Greene later confirmed to The Hill that the phone call was in fact from Trump. 

“It was the perfect phone call,” she added in a post on Twitter, a reference to Trump's comment about the phone call at the center of his first impeachment.

Trump also reportedly called other Republican holdouts on behalf of McCarthy and McCarthy credited Trump for helping him win the 15th ballot.

Republicans rush to stay in session after McCarthy apparently locks down votes

House Republicans rush to change their vote to adjourn

With Republicans seemingly at an impasse after a 14th failed vote, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) moved to adjourn the House until Monday. 

The motion seemed to have enough GOP support to pass, but then McCarthy and other Republicans rushed to the dais to their change votes and stay in session.

McCarthy had seemingly locked down the votes he needed.

Several Republican lawmakers chanted “one more time” in anticipation of what would be the 15th and final ballot. With all six Republican holdouts changing their vote to "present," McCarthy was able to secure the Speakership with 216 votes just after midnight on Saturday.  

Democrats troll their Republican colleagues

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.)

As Republican infighting continued throughout the week, Democrats watched with a level of amusement, frequently mocking their GOP counterparts.

Several Democratic members brought out buckets of popcorn amid the drawn-out process.

"We are breaking the popcorn out in the Dem Caucus till the Republicans get their act together," Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said in a Twitter post on Tuesday, accompanied by a picture of large bucket of popcorn.

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) was seen during Friday's votes sitting and reading “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F---” by Mark Manson.

After McCarthy clinched the Speakership on Saturday morning, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) also appeared to take a jab at the Republican conference, calling it an honor to “finally” welcome members to the 118th Congress.

McCarthy Speaker quest leaves balancing act on national security

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is toeing a delicate line on national security issues in the lame-duck session as he seeks to win enough votes on the House floor to win the Speakership in January.

McCarthy is torn between competing factions of the GOP as he weighs a series of moves targeting the Biden administration and other Washington Democrats in the next Congress — all while trying to convince conservative GOP lawmakers to back him for Speaker.

He’s vowed to boot California Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell off the House Intelligence Committee and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He’s also threatened to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for his handling of the southern border.

And McCarthy has indicated he will withhold GOP support for a lame-duck vote on a bipartisan defense policy bill as a way to fight “wokeism” in the military.  

If the delay is successful, it would mark the first time in more than 60 years that has Congress failed to reauthorize Pentagon spending by the end of a calendar year; the delay would allow a GOP House to take it up next year.

Democrats have blasted McCarthy’s plans to boot Democrats from panels as purely political, while Republicans say Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) set Congress on that slippery slope when House Democrats impeached former President Trump twice and later expelled two Republicans from their committee seats.

The House voted last year to punish Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) for sharing an animated video showing him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.) was removed months earlier for promoting the execution of leading Democrats before she was elected to office. 

McCarthy blamed Democrats for “this new standard.”

“Never in the history [of Congress] have you had the majority tell the minority who can be on committee,” McCarthy said at the start of 2022. “This is a new level of what the Democrats have done.”

For Schiff, McCarthy has zeroed in on his role in the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia, accusing him of lying to the public about the former president’s ties to Moscow and Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. He’s bashed Swalwell for his ties to a Chinese spy with whom he cut off contact after being warned of her true identity by the FBI.

Schiff said his targeting is nothing more than an effort by McCarthy to win support for his Speakership bid.

McCarthy was elected Speaker-designate in a closed-door GOP conference vote, but lost 31 votes. He will need to win over many of them to be elected Speaker on the House floor.

“McCarthy’s problem is not with what I have said about Russia. McCarthy’s problem is, he can’t get to 218 without Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar and Matt Gaetz,” Schiff said Sunday during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union." 

“And so he will do whatever they ask. And, right now, they’re asking for me to be removed from our committees. And he’s willing to do it. He’s willing to do anything they ask.”

The Mayorkas fight reflects the awkward line that McCarthy is trying to walk.

He courted conservative votes last week by vowing an investigation of Mayorkas but did not fully embrace an impeachment vote, allowing himself wiggle room to change his mind next year.

“If Secretary Mayorkas does not resign, House Republicans will investigate. Every order, every action and every failure will determine whether we can begin impeachment inquiry,” McCarthy said at a press conference in El Paso, Texas.

In an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) expressed doubt the GOP would be able to impeach Mayorkas swiftly.

“You’ve got to build a case. You need the facts, evidence before you indict. Has he been derelict in his responsibilities? I think so,” he said.

Other Republicans, however, want to go full steam ahead, suggesting anything short of Mayorkas’s removal would put the country’s security at risk.

“He needs to go,” Rep. Ronnie Jackson (R-Texas) told Fox News on Sunday. “We need to make an example of Mayorkas. And he will be just the start of what we do in this new Congress.”

Other Republicans have dismissed an impeachment vote as a stunt.

“It would basically be putting form over substance to go through a big performance on impeachment that’s never going anywhere,” former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, a George W. Bush appointee, said over the weekend, “rather than actually working with the administration to solve the problem.”

McCarthy also faces divisions on delaying the defense bill, as some Republicans want to move forward and also pull back from threats to limit support for Ukraine. 

McCarthy says he wants to pump the breaks on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and another round of funding to aid Ukraine in its battle against Russia, saying he wouldn’t back a “blank check.”

“I’ve watched what the Democrats have done on many of these things, especially the NDAA — the wokeism that they want to bring in there,” McCarthy told reporters shortly after the midterms. “I actually believe the NDAA should hold up until the 1st of this year — and let’s get it right.”

McCarthy is far from the only Republican with complaints about the NDAA. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) put out a report slamming the “Woke Warfighters” of the Pentagon. But McCarthy is also facing pressure from the right.

“Let’s hold the bill hostage. Let’s leverage what we have,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who opposes McCarthy’s Speakership bid, recently said on a podcast. 

Democrats and the Biden administration argue a delay will hurt the military.

“If you kick it off four, five, six months, you are really damaging the United States military. So I hope Kevin McCarthy understands that,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said. “You are damaging the United States military every day past Oct. 1 that you don’t get it done, and certainly more so every day past" Jan. 1.

On Ukraine, some Republicans have bristled at the idea of holding back any funding as the country continues to make advances against Russia.

“We're going to make certain they get what they need,” House Intelligence Committee ranking member Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said in an appearance alongside McCaul.

“The fact is, we are going to provide more oversight, transparency and accountability. We're not going to write a blank check,” McCaul added. “Does that diminish our will to help the Ukraine people fight? No. But we're going to do it in a responsible way.” 

McCarthy: Democrats could pick Speaker if Republicans ‘play games’ on House floor

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) warned his skeptics in the House Republican Conference against opposing him for Speaker on the House floor.

“We have to speak as one voice. We will only be successful if we work together, or we’ll lose individually. This is very fragile — that we are the only stopgap for this Biden administration,” McCarthy said on Newsmax Monday.

“And if we don’t do this right, the Democrats can take the majority. If we play games on the floor, the Democrats can end up picking who the Speaker is,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy completed the first step toward Speakership when he won the House GOP’s nomination for the position earlier this month against a long-shot challenge from Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a former chair of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, in a 188 to 31 vote, with five others voting for neither of the two.

But in order to secure the Speakership, he needs to win majority support on the House floor on the first day of the new Congress on Jan. 3. And with Republicans winning a narrower-than-anticipated majority of around 222 seats to around 213 for Democrats, McCarthy can only afford to lose a handful of Republican votes on the floor.

All Democrats are expected to vote for their party’s Speaker nominee, expected to be finalized as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) this week. At least five House Republicans from the hard-line conservative wing have publicly said or strongly indicated that they will not vote for McCarthy on the floor, throwing his Speakership bid into dangerous territory.

Those members are Reps. Bob Good (Va.), Ralph Norman (S.C.), Matt Rosendale (Mont.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Biggs. 

Several others have expressed skepticism of McCarthy but have not said how they will vote on Jan. 3. Biggs said on the "Conservative Review" podcast on Monday that he thinks the number of “hard noes” on McCarthy is around 20 GOP members, which would sink McCarthy’s bid.

McCarthy’s warning about Democrats picking the Speaker echoes repeated warnings from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has broken with her Freedom Caucus colleagues to strongly support McCarthy. A handful of moderates, she says, could join with Democrats to elect a more moderate Speaker.

McCarthy also alluded to other factions of the party and the possibility of moderates breaking away.

“You have to listen to everybody in the conference, because five people on any side can stop anything when you’re in the majority,” McCarthy said on Newsmax.

Those opposed to McCarthy cite various issues, such as his not committing to pass a budget that slashes spending, his resistance to Freedom Caucus rules change requests that would give more power to rank-and-file members and his unwillingness to commit to impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. 

McCarthy did last week call on Mayorkas to resign or face a House GOP investigation and potential impeachment inquiry.

Allies of McCarthy also point out that there is no viable GOP alternative to him for Speaker, though Biggs has said he expects a more consensus candidate to emerge before Jan. 3.

“I think at the end of the day, calmer heads will prevail. We’ll work together to find the best path forward,” McCarthy said.

Though a majority of the whole House is 218 members, it is possible for a Speaker to be elected with fewer than that number since a Speaker needs majority support from only those voting for a specific candidate by surname.

Absences, “present” votes and vacancies lower that threshold. Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin (Va.) died on Monday, and his seat is likely to be vacant on Jan. 3.