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Kevin McCarthy is elected House speaker after 15 votes and days of negotiations

Newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy holds the gavel after he was elected on the 15th ballot on January 7, 2023.
Olivier Douliery
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AFP via Getty Images
Newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy holds the gavel after he was elected on the 15th ballot on January 7, 2023.

Updated January 7, 2023 at 1:43 AM ET

Kevin McCarthy is now officially speaker of the House. The California Republican eked out a victory after a historic 15 rounds of voting and a dramatic series of events on the House floor late Friday night.

The result also meant elected representatives have finally been sworn in as members of the 118th Congress, and the House can get to work.

McCarthy had been in tense negotiations for days with a small but critical group of far-right conservative lawmakers who made extended demands for concessions that would essentially make it easier to depose a speaker and weaken the powers of the speaker's office to drive the legislative agenda and assign committee posts.

After McCarthy failed to secure the speakership in a 14th round of voting late Friday night, the House quashed a motion to adjourn until Monday and instead opted to continue voting in a 15th — and ultimately final — round of balloting.

McCarthy emerged victorious after Republicans Andy Biggs and Eli Crane of Arizona and Bob Good of Virginia voted "present," which lowered the threshold of support the GOP leader needed to win.

"I never thought we'd get up here"

"That was easy, huh?" McCarthy quipped upon receiving the gavel around 1 a.m. EST. "I never thought we'd get up here," he laughed.

McCarthy gave a speech calling on the importance of checks and balances and holding government accountable.

"It's time for us to be a check and provide some balance to the president's policies," he said.

"We commit to stop wasteful Washington spending, to lower the price of groceries, gas, cars, housing, and stop the rising national debt."

McCarthy also joked to Hakeem Jeffries, who received unanimous support from Democrats: "I've got to warn you — two years ago, I got 100% of the vote from my conference."

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is congratulated 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.
Alex Brandon / AP
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AP
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is congratulated 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.

McCarthy also committed to Jeffries that "our debates will be passionate and they will never be personal."

For his part, Minority Leader Jeffries delivered a passionate speech about the accomplishments of the Democratic Party under the Biden administration, including the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act.

"It was one of the most consequential Congresses in American history, President Biden gets the job done, and the 'd' in Democrats stands for deliver."

Jeffries also acknowledged the "iconic, heroic, legendary Speaker Emerita Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi."

"Without question in my mind, Speaker Emerita Pelosi will go down in history as the greatest speaker of all time," he said. "Throughout her time in Congress, she's been a legendary legislator, a fabulous facilitator and a no-nonsense negotiator."

Path to McCarthy's victory

Progress for McCarthy was slow earlier in the week, but he gained momentum in a Friday afternoon vote when 14 of his 20 detractors flipped to vote for him after four days and 12 rounds of balloting.

McCarthy projected confidence ahead of a planned 14th round of voting late Friday night, pledging to reporters: "We're going to get it done tonight."

But then McCarthy failed once again to reach the threshold needed to assume the gavel. McCarthy needed a majority of all members voting to win, which can fluctuate depending on who shows up. Of 432 votes cast in the penultimate round, McCarthy had 216.

Republicans Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida, two strong critics of McCarthy, voted "present" in the 14th vote. But it wasn't enough as four other Republicans voted for someone else. McCarthy either needed another member to vote present or for someone to flip to an affirmative vote.

McCarthy walked to the back of the chamber and appeared to try to convince Gaetz and Boebert, who were seated next to each other, to change their minds. Other Republicans swarmed Gaetz and engaged in seemingly heated discussions after McCarthy walked away.

The concessions McCarthy offered during the course of negotiations included making it easier to oust the speaker, an agreement to institute a 72-hour window for members to read bills before they get a vote, and a pledge to vote on legislation to institute term limits for members of Congress.

"I think I can speak for generally all of us: It is the framework of an agreement in good faith that allows us to keep moving forward," Pennsylvania Republican Scott Perry, a leading McCarthy critic, told reporters after the 12th ballot in which he voted in favor of McCarthy for the first time.

Along with Perry, the McCarthy holdouts who flipped in his favor on the momentum-swinging 12th ballot included: Dan Bishop of North Carolina, Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma, Michael Cloud, Chip Roy and Keith Self of Texas, Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Byron Donalds and Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Mary Miller of Illinois, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Andy Ogles of Tennessee and Victoria Spartz of Indiana. Republican Andy Harris of Maryland joined them on the 13th ballot.

The relief in the chamber was palpable as each dissenter shifted their support in favor of McCarthy, with Republicans bursting into applause and offering standing ovations to their colleagues who moved the needle closer to resolution.

Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., greets Rep.-elect Chip Roy, R-Texas, in the House Chamber during the fourth day of elections for Speaker of the House. Both Republicans at one point this week voted against McCarthy.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., greets Rep.-elect Chip Roy, R-Texas, in the House Chamber during the fourth day of elections for Speaker of the House. Both Republicans at one point this week voted against McCarthy.

Making history

The high-stakes impasse is historic: It is the first time in a century that an election of a House speaker took multiple ballots to complete. The longest vote in U.S. history took place in 1855, lasting 133 rounds over two months.

The drama of not electing a speaker has very real consequences. The House could not conduct any business, including swearing in new members, until a speaker was chosen.

Without a speaker, lawmakers can't form committees, advance legislation or participate in intelligence briefings.

On Wednesday, a group of House Republican veterans held a news conference on the speaker standoff, which they referred to as being held hostage.

"This group has now managed to kind of snatch defeat from the jaws of victory — and the victory was this Republican majority," said Florida Republican Michael Waltz, referring to the group of Republicans who did not support McCarthy. "There's negotiations and then there's holding the rest of us hostage and 20 don't get to do that to 201 [members-elect]."

On Friday, the White House emphasized it was eager for the House to resolve the speaker stalemate soon, but downplayed the impact to national security.

"We have vehicles to continue to communicate with both chambers of Congress, and that communication will continue throughout the foreseeable future," said John Kirby, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council. "There's no particular worry or concern that national security will be put at significant risk here."

The impasse likely foreshadows the chaos expected during the next two years of divided government on Capitol Hill, where Republicans hold a very narrow majority and the conservative Freedom Caucus has shown its willingness to hold the rest of the Republican conference hostage to its demands.

Shannon Terranova, widow of Capitol Police Officer Police Williams Evans, and their children Logan and Abigail, join a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the east front steps of the US Capitol to honor the police officers who lost their lives in the attack on the Capitol, on the second anniversary of the January 6, 2021.
Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Shannon Terranova, widow of Capitol Police Officer Police Williams Evans, and their children Logan and Abigail, join a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the east front steps of the U.S. Capitol to honor the police officers who lost their lives in the attack on the Capitol, on the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 riot.

In the shadow of the attack on the U.S. Capitol

Friday's standoff coincides with the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, when supporters of then-President Donald Trump breached the building with the aim of stopping Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election in favor of Joe Biden.

The anniversary comes just weeks after the House committee investigating the attack concluded its investigation and released its full report. In it, they recommend the Ethics Committee investigate McCarthy for his refusal to comply with the panel's investigation.

Many of the House Republicans who spurred on gridlock of the speaker elections this week were supportive of Trump's effort to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential election. The fact that Trump's endorsement of McCarthy — which he reiterated on Wednesday — did not shift significant support from those members suggested the former president's influence over them is waning.

California Democrat Pete Aguilar mentioned the attack during his speech Friday night after nominating Democrat Hakeem Jeffries of New York for speaker.

"If we are forced to be here this evening because of the chaos and crisis on the other side, it's only fair to point out, Madam Clerk, that the same individuals who fanned the flames of Jan. 6, who told their followers and their followers' followers that they needed to fight back, and who challenged the swearing in of members based on a bogus claim of fake electors may well be in charge of the People's House, if they can ever agree on who can lead them," Aguilar said.

Three Democrats introduced a resolution to federally recognize Jan. 6 as "Democracy Day," encouraging state and local governments and civil groups to engage in pro-democracy programs and activities. It was sponsored by Democrats Dan Goldman of New York, Dean Phillips of Minnesota and Jason Crow of Colorado.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Susan Davis
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.