In the 15th ballot, Kevin McCarthy secured enough votes to be elected speaker of the House of Representatives. But the concessions he makes to the Republican rebels are big. He puts on a political straitjacket - or is it an explosive vest?
Kevin McCarthy did it: In the 15th attempt, the 57-year-old MP from California still wins the election as speaker of the US House of Representatives. He only needed 14 more attempts than his predecessors in the past 100 years. 14 ballots in which McCarthy was humiliated and paraded by some of his Republican party colleagues. Just like in the penultimate ballot, in which everything should have been clear by now, but in the end one vote for victory was missing.
That one voice should come from Matt Gaetz, one of McCarthy's toughest opponents. But at the last minute, the controversial Florida MP abstained and once again exposed his Republican party colleague. Afterwards, open mouths could be seen in the hall, at least one MP had tears in his eyes. And between the camp of rebel Gaetz and the betrayed McCarthy, it almost came to blows.
Only one ballot later can the 57-year-old Californian breathe a sigh of relief. Not because the Republicans have all backed him, but because five other rebels in addition to Gaetz are now abstaining as agreed, thus lowering the hurdle to victory.
Although Matt Gaetz and Kevin McCarthy belong to the same party, they have fundamentally different ideas about Republican politics. One, Gaetz, has only been in the House of Representatives for the first district of Florida since 2017, is an ardent supporter of former President Donald Trump and belongs to the radical wing of the Republicans, the so-called Freedom Caucus.
The 40-year-old is convinced that the Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election. In the hall of the House of Representatives, Gaetz is said to have bragged about photos of naked women on his smartphone - during a vote. He is suspected of having sex with at least one minor.
McCarthy, on the other hand, is part of the Washington D.C. establishment. The 57-year-old has been in the House of Representatives since 2007 and only four years later became the majority leader, i.e. the parliamentary group leader, of the Republican Party for the first time.
He is well connected in the American capital and a magnet for campaign donations. Over the years he is said to have raised hundreds of millions of dollars from corporations, millionaires and billionaires for Republican campaigns.
But unlike Gaetz, McCarthy is also a political turnaround without convictions: First, like many other Republicans, he was against Donald Trump in the 2016 election campaign, but then he supported him. In 2021, he initially blamed the snapped billionaire for the storming of the Capitol and campaigned internally for his resignation. But when it became important, like Gaetz, he voted against recognizing the presidential election. After several days of drama in the House of Representatives, it was also Trump that McCarthy mentioned by name: "I would particularly like to thank President Trump," he said in front of the cameras.
Because McCarthy knows that he cannot organize majorities in the House of Representatives without Trump and his supporters. That's why the 57-year-old Gaetz and other members of the Freedom Caucus made many concessions in December, long before the first ballot, says Philipp Adorf in the ntv podcast "Learned something again." The political scientist conducts research at the University of Bonn on the Republican Party, of which more and more members are pursuing Trump-style politics.
The "political swamp" in Washington must be drained - with this position Donald Trump catapulted himself into the White House in 2016. MPs like Gaetz have also ridden this wave from electoral success to electoral success. They do not control the Republican Party and cannot hold important posts or offices themselves. But they can very well dictate the rules to promising candidates like McCarthy, especially when the majority is tight, as they have done in the past few days in the House of Representatives.
"It ends in one of two ways," Gaetz had already announced on Fox News on Thursday: "Either Kevin realizes that there is no way for him to become speaker of the house, or he wakes up and puts on a straitjacket and accepts the set of rules that we presented to him. This guy has been a 14-year leader in Washington, D.C., and this city needs to change."
The Republican rebels often say they don't trust McCarthy and his allies. Because they are still willing to work with the Democrats and to find compromises on certain issues - for example on budget issues. But the Freedom Caucus only wants laws to be passed that correspond to Republican ideals, such as low government spending, and that could be passed purely with Republican votes, says political scientist Adorf.
And if this requires methods that are almost extortionate, or if political activity in Washington comes to a standstill as a result, then so be it. The Freedom Caucus has no problem with that, explains the party researcher. "The argument is that if the government apparatus shuts down and MPs can't debate bills, the people will realize that Washington isn't all that important."
Kevin McCarthy has therefore opted for the political straitjacket. What he offered the rebels is not officially known. But among other things, he is said to have promised them high-ranking positions on important committees. For example, in the committee that decides which laws will ultimately be voted on in the House of Representatives, as reported by the Washington Post.
According to CNN, McCarthy also agreed that he and allied Republicans and their lobby groups would no longer get involved in Republican primaries featuring members of the Freedom Caucus. This has happened more often in the past to push through more moderate candidates, but has pissed off radical MPs like Gaetz. In addition, new federal spending should only be approved if cuts are made elsewhere at the same time.
But perhaps the most important concession concerns McCarthy himself: Previously, it took five MPs to request a vote of no confidence in the speaker of the House of Representatives. From now on, a single disgruntled MP should be enough to push through this vote, the US media reports unanimously.
McCarthy didn't put on a straitjacket, but an explosive vest, is one comment. And the detonator is in the hands of the Republican rebels.