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Rep. McCarthy was elected House speaker. At what cost?


After a chaotic week and 15 rounds of voting, California Republican Kevin McCarthy was finally elected speaker of the house just after midnight today. In the end, six of his remaining far-right detractors voted present to allow him to win with 216 votes. McCarthy then addressed the House - and the drama of it all.


KEVIN MCCARTHY: That was easy, huh? I never thought we'd get up here.

LIMBONG: Now, McCarthy was able to secure victory only after making a number of concessions to a far-right faction of his party who worked relentlessly to weaken the power he'll have as speaker. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis has been following all of it and joins us now. Hey, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey. Great to be here.

LIMBONG: All right. So McCarthy won the speakership. But, you know, the big question is, at what cost?

DAVIS: Well, he's going to enter the speaker's office weaker than any of his recent predecessors, certainly more than Nancy Pelosi or even Paul Ryan. He had to make concessions to put more conservatives on key committees, to give more power to the rank and file on how they could change legislation. There are some handshake agreements to extract spending cuts for any vote to increase the nation's borrowing limit, also known as the debt ceiling. Even a political concession from his outside super PAC not to engage in open Republican primary elections. Probably most consequential change is for McCarthy himself. He agreed to revert to an old House rule that will allow any one member to try to force a vote to remove him as speaker at any point in this Congress.

LIMBONG: Wow. That's a lot of concessions. So McCarthy only has a four-seat majority. You know, that's the exact same margin, we should note, that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi had with Democrats in the last Congress. And he's also facing a divided government with, you know, Democrats in charge of the Senate and White House. So how can he deliver on any of these promises to the right?

DAVIS: I mean, it's going to be hard. Any bill signed into law is going to be signed by Democratic President Joe Biden. So even if he can keep 218 Republicans unified behind a conservative agenda in the House, it's really not going to go anywhere in the broader Congress. I think the most consequential clash down the road that people are watching for in the coming months is how McCarthy is going to navigate some must-pass votes to raise the debt limit or risk an unprecedented national default and also how to keep the government open at the end of the fiscal year in September. Lucky for him, he's got some time to figure this out. These votes are months away. And again, at any point in this, any number of his 20 or so detractors in the speaker fight could force a referendum vote on his speakership.

LIMBONG: So now, this confrontation was playing out on the second anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Did that factor into this debate at all?

DAVIS: Republicans didn't really acknowledge the significance of the day. Democrats certainly did. But for Republicans, I think what's notable is how much of a role former President Trump, who obviously helped stir up the attack on the Capitol, played this week in the speaker fight. He endorsed McCarthy for the job. He was working the phones with these holdout members last night on the floor. And in an impromptu press conference after the vote, McCarthy made a point, unprompted, to praise and thank Trump for his help.


MCCARTHY: But I do want to especially thank President Trump. I don't think anybody should doubt his influence. He was with me from the beginning. Somebody wrote they doubt if whether he was there, and he was all in.

DAVIS: This is a really sharp contrast now between the House and Senate Republican leaders. McCarthy firmly aligned with Trump, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has severed all ties with him. And this is going to be a key power dynamic to watch in this Congress, certainly as Trump pursues the 2024 presidential nomination.

LIMBONG: That's NPR's political correspondent Susan Davis. Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.