McCarthy, All Carrots and No Sticks, Grinned His Way to the Speakership

WASHINGTON — For days as hard-right lawmakers voted again and again to block him from becoming speaker, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California sat on the House floor with a grin plastered to his face.

Talking with reporters, he gamely brushed off the notion that his historic and humiliating slog to election — the most protracted such contest since 1859 — foretold any troubles ahead for him in governing with an unruly and narrow majority.

“This is the great part,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern.”

What has become perhaps the most ‌painful and ‌critical‌ ‌week of Mr. McCarthy’s political career has also reaffirmed a portrait of him well‌ known by both his allies and detractors: that of an affable class president type who is all carrots and no stick, and is more adept at backslapping and political strategizing than policymaking or legislative maneuvering.

On the 15th ballot cast early on Saturday morning, as Mr. McCarthy finally clinched the speakership, it appeared that his malleability had paid off.

It very nearly did not.

Late on Friday night, just as it appeared that Mr. McCarthy was finally going to win the speaker’s gavel that had eluded him for so long, it was suddenly yanked away from him at the last minute, in a highly charged moment on the House floor when his few remaining adversaries refused to bow.

As the voting dragged on, it became clear that Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who has emerged as Mr. McCarthy’s chief adversary, would become the deciding vote. And when Mr. Gaetz voted “present,” depriving Mr. McCarthy of the majority support he needed, the California Republican blanched, stood up from his seat and walked across the House floor to speak to Mr. Gaetz himself.

After an energized and wildly gesticulating Mr. Gaetz refused Mr. McCarthy’s entreaty, Mr. McCarthy’s shoulders, for the first time this week, visibly sagged, and he trudged slowly back across the floor and sunk into his seat.

But after former President Donald J. Trump placed phone calls to a group of key holdouts, and a frenzied round of haggling on the House floor, Mr. McCarthy was broadly grinning again. About an hour later, he won the speakership.

It came after he offered a series of sweeping concessions that would substantially weaken his authority as speaker and make for an unwieldy environment in the House, where the slim Republican majority and a hard-right faction with an appetite for disarray had already promised to make it difficult to get anything done.

“Sticks don’t work in this town,” said Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, a McCarthy ally. “I hear that maybe they work on the other side of the aisle. They certainly don’t work for Republicans. You’re just not going to threaten and break people into doing the right thing, particularly not with a narrow majority.”

Yet that style has appeared uniquely ill-suited to the challenge Mr. McCarthy faces of corralling a restive group of ideologically driven House Republicans that is obsessed with legislative details and skilled at procedural disruption.

It is in part that disconnect that created the conditions for Mr. McCarthy’s historic floor fight for the speakership, further emboldening a group of defectors who neither fear him nor respect him, and who have been eager to extract concessions from a lawmaker who had made it clear he would stop at nothing to win the job. Mr. Gaetz said on Tuesday that lawmakers should not give the post to somebody willing to sell “shares of himself to get” it.

“You have this moment in time where McCarthy wants it so badly and has just been raked over the coals for an awesome four days,” exulted Russ Vought, the president of the right-wing Center for Renewing America, as he listed the concessions the Republican leader had offered.

Carrots may have succeeded in winning Mr. McCarthy the speaker’s gavel. But his willingness to compromise has also guaranteed that it would become almost impossible for him to control the rebels in his ranks and ensure that the House can perform its most basic duties in the coming two years, such as funding the government, including the military, or avoiding a catastrophic federal debt default.

“He will have to live the entirety of his speakership in a straitjacket constructed by the rules that we’re working on now,” Mr. Gaetz said.

Still, both admirers and detractors said Mr. McCarthy’s sheer willingness to sit on the House floor weathering vote after humiliating vote against him — even as he offered a slew of concessions with no clear sense of whether the right-wing defectors would ever cave — was critical to his turnaround. Under pressure to step aside when there appeared to be no chance that he could clinch the speaker’s gavel, he hung on anyway.

It also helped Mr. McCarthy’s cause that no viable challenger, like Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, his whip, or Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, ever stepped forward to offer themselves as a consensus candidate who could end the deadlock.

A longtime politician born and raised in one of the few remaining conservative pockets of California, the farming and oil city of Bakersfield, Mr. McCarthy cut his teeth in the California State Assembly as the minority leader, where he was known as a people-pleasing deal-cutter who doled out iPods as gifts to his colleagues and compiled binders of information to better remember their birthdays and wedding anniversaries.

That brand of bonhomie extended to the Tea Party era, when Mr. McCarthy and his fellow self-styled “Young Guns” Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Eric Cantor of Virginia helped recruit a phalanx of populist-inspired candidates who helped sweep their party into the House majority, and Mr. McCarthy into leadership.

Mr. McCarthy watched as the hard-right flank of that majority ran John A. Boehner of Ohio from his speakership in 2015 and blocked his own first attempt at securing the job, after 40 of its members announced that they would not support him, questioning his conservative credentials.

They also were unhappy that he had suggested in an interview on Fox News that the House committee investigating the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, had the political aim of damaging Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The California Republican quickly allied himself with Mr. Trump, endorsing him as the party’s nominee in 2016 even as Mr. Ryan was loath to do so, eventually cultivating such a close relationship that Mr. Trump referred to him as “My Kevin.” He famously presented Mr. Trump with a curated package of only the former president’s favorite flavors of Starburst candies.

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