Jan 9, 2023

Republicans pick Kevin McCarthy for Speaker.

Republicans pick Kevin McCarthy for Speaker.
Kevin McCarthy speaking with supporters of President of the United States Donald Trump at a "Make America Great Again" campaign rally at Phoenix in 2020. Photo: Gage Skidmore

It took 15 votes, but McCarthy is finally in.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

After 15 votes, Republicans chose Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to lead the party in the House. Today, we cover what happened, catch you up on what you missed, and answer a question about the Twitter files.

Everything we missed.

We sent our last regular newsletter on December 23. Here is a rapid fire rundown of the news we missed:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared before Congress. Ukrainian officials said 54 of 69 missiles launched by Russia into major cities were intercepted by air defenses. Then, at least 63 Russian troops were killed by Ukrainian strikes on Russian barracks and ammunition storage in the Russian-occupied eastern Donetsk region over the weekend.

In other international news, the Taliban-led Afghan government suspended primary school for girls, then barred women from working for any NGOs. China scrapped quarantines for travelers as it continues to dismantle its zero Covid policy; China also sent 71 warplanes and several warships into waters near Taiwan after the U.S. adopted a defense spending bill that strengthens ties to the island nation. Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israeli prime minister for the sixth time. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sworn in as Brazil’s president for the second time. Lastly, retired Pope Benedict XVI died at the age of 95.

In national politics, Congress passed a $1.7 trillion omnibus bill, which we’ll cover in tomorrow’s newsletter. The House passed the Equal Pay for Team USA Act. Six years of Trump's tax returns were released by Democrats. Meanwhile, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said he had a serious but treatable form of cancer, while Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) said he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and would be undergoing surgery in the coming months. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) surprised colleagues by announcing her plans to retire, opening up another competitive Senate seat in 2024.

Elsewhere, Rep. George Santos (R-NY) admitted to fabricating his credentials, an Arizona judge ruled against Kari Lake in her challenge to the state’s election results, and Kris Mayes (D) won a recount in Arizona's attorney general race by 280 votes.

In legal news, Sam Bankman-Fried agreed to be extradited to the U.S. and then plead not guilty. One of the ringleaders of a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was sentenced to 16 years in prison. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Biden administration must keep Title 42 in place. A Maine man was charged with attempted murder after assaulting three police officers with a machete in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

Police are also investigating multiple shootings at the homes and offices of elected Democrats in New Mexico. In western New York, at least 44 people died as a result of a massive blizzard.

In economic news, Amazon announced plans to lay off 18,000 workers. And finally, the U.S. economy added 223,000 jobs last month.

Today's quick hits.

  1. Thousands of supporters of Brazil's former president Jair Bolsonaro, who lost his election in October, stormed the National Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace in Brasilia, the capital. (The storming)
  2. House Republicans say they will launch a new investigative panel this week that will demand copies of White House emails, memos and other communications with Big Tech companies. (The plans)
  3. A 6-year-old student shot and wounded a teacher in Newport News, Virginia, during an altercation inside a first-grade classroom. The teacher is facing life-threatening injuries as investigators try to determine the source of the handgun. (The shooting)
  4. President Joe Biden made his first trip to the US-Mexico border since taking office with a stop in El Paso, Texas on Sunday, and now heads to Mexico City for a meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. (The visit)
  5. The U.S. announced a $3 billion package of armored vehicles it will send to Ukraine, just days after Ukraine denied reports that Russia killed over 600 Ukrainian personnel in a missile attack. (The vehicles)

Today's topic.

Kevin McCarthy. On Saturday, the 57-year-old Republican representative from California was elected Speaker of the House after a historic 15 votes on the House floor over the span of five days. The process required more ballots than the House has needed to pick a Speaker since 1859, illustrating deep divisions in the Republican caucus.

McCarthy finally won the gavel by a 216-212 margin, winning with fewer than half of the total House votes after six Republicans opted out of the proceedings by voting “present,” lowering the total needed for a majority. On the 14th ballot, after vocal McCarthy detractor Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) withheld his vote, Republican Rep. Mike Rogers had to be physically pulled away from Gaetz on the House floor. Subsequent reports indicated Gaetz had agreed to vote for McCarthy, then balked during the actual vote.

In our last edition before the holiday break, we previewed the fight for House Speaker.

McCarthy replaces Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who will remain in Congress but has stepped down from Democratic leadership. Democrats picked Hakeem Jeffries (NY) to be their minority leader in the House. In order to get the gavel, McCarthy spent weeks negotiating with a group of over 20 conservative members of the House, mostly from the Freedom Caucus, agreeing to new rule changes in how the House functions in order to win their votes.

Among those concessions, any member of the House can call a no-confidence vote on the Speaker to remove him. Pelosi had changed that rule to require a majority of members or House leadership to force a no-confidence vote. Hard-line conservatives also earned a commitment to tie spending cuts to raising the debt ceiling. This year, Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling to avoid defaulting on the national debt, which could set off an economic calamity. Republicans now say they plan to attach spending cuts to the must-pass bill.

Relatedly, McCarthy said he will create a plan to balance the federal budget within 10 years, including long-term reforms to programs like Medicare and Social Security. He also hopes to move back to "regular order," which means voting on 12 appropriation bills individually rather than together in an omnibus bill.

Finally, McCarthy also agreed to a review of ongoing arrests connected to the January 6 riot and criminal investigations of former President Donald Trump, more subcommittee roles for conservative members of his caucus, and procedural changes to legislation that include 72 hours to review any bill before it reaches the floor. The same members also got an agreement for a floor vote on establishing term limits for all House members.

Other ideas were also discussed, and we expect more changes to House rules and deals with individual members to make news in the coming weeks.

Today, we're going to take a look at some commentary from the right and left on McCarthy becoming Speaker, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is divided on the floor vote, with some criticizing the concessions McCarthy made and others celebrating them.
  • Some argue McCarthy may have won the Speaker's gavel but has assured two years of chaos in the process.
  • Others praise McCarthy's opponents for bringing accountability back to leadership in Congress.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said McCarthy's concessions may cost U.S. defense spending.

"Kevin McCarthy finally won enough votes to become Speaker of the U.S. House early Saturday, on the 15th roll call. His latest concessions turned 15 votes, and then enough of the last holdouts voted 'present' to give him a majority. But the price of victory has been high—both in lost authority for the new Speaker and perhaps in the ability of the new Republican majority to get anything done," the board said. "Don’t believe the happy talk that this was a healthy display of deliberative democracy. This was a power play. A group of backbenchers saw an opportunity to exploit the narrow GOP margin of five seats to put themselves in positions of power that they hadn’t earned through seniority or influence with colleagues.

"They couched their demands in claims of high principle and fixing a 'broken' House by returning to 'regular order.' Some of what they sought could do some good, such as holding votes on all 12 spending bills for a change... But note that the rebel demands included gaining seats of power for themselves. They won two seats on the Rules Committee that sets the terms for floor debate and amendments. This could narrow Mr. McCarthy’s maneuvering room as he tries to put together majorities for legislation. They also won a pledge that the top-line budget figure for domestic discretionary spending in fiscal 2024 won’t exceed what it was in fiscal 2022. That includes defense spending, which would have to fall by $75 billion if the cuts are split with nondefense accounts."

In American Greatness, Roger Kimball said you can expect the changes to be mostly cosmetic.

"McCarthy is an unreliable ally for those on the Right. He was only too happy to shovel billions of your and your children’s money to Ukraine while doing little to secure our southern border," Kimball wrote. "McCarthy is from California, so, naturally, he likes to spend money. He even got behind such improvident and mendacious schemes as raiding Medicare to pay for the U.S. Postal Service. He was happy to fund the January 6 kangaroo court, grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, and support mandates for the useless—indeed, dangerous—COVID vaccine for the military. In plain terms, his voting record is only intermittently conservative.

"Kevin McCarthy, in short, is a swamp creature masquerading as a swamp critic. The Swamp loves its own, and so it was no surprise that McCarthy eventually prevailed, just barely," he added. "He did so at considerable cost to the power of the speaker’s office but also considerable benefit to people who care about accountability. The bottom line is that McCarthy’s prerogatives as speaker have been curtailed, which is a good thing... At the same time, I get the distinct feeling that not a lot is going to change. Will there be a meaningful investigation of the January 6 protest at the Capitol? Will the partisan and grotesquely un-democratic actions of the January 6 committee presided over by anti-Trump fanatics receive the scrutiny they deserve? I doubt it."

In CNN, Charlie Dent called McCarthy’s concessions an inexplicable act of self destruction.

"Anyone surprised by the dysfunction this week should not have been; the House GOP conference has been growing increasingly dysfunctional over the past 13 years," Dent said. "It's time to stop feeding the crocodiles. Rational Republicans must stand, fight and resist. Two can play this game. If the diabolical demands and tactics of the chaos caucus didn't upset them enough, consider this quote from Gaetz: 'I ran out of things I could even imagine to ask for.' Rational House Republicans need to protect themselves from the deal McCarthy agreed to in his own quest for the coveted gavel.

"Big legislative battles are looming, and Republicans will need all the procedural tools at their disposal to keep the country on track and out of the proverbial ditch, or worse. Tanking the worst of the proposed rules changes is in order," Dent added. "And if there aren't enough GOP votes for a more reasonable rules package, then it's time to try something novel — bipartisanship. In this case, rational Republicans should reach across the aisle and work with Democrats to secure enough votes for a rules package that rolls back some of the hardliners' demands."

What the left is saying.

  • The left criticizes House Republicans for once in a century disorder and worries about what McCarthy's concessions mean for the future.
  • Many say McCarthy has assured two years of Congressional dysfunction.
  • Some say there are lessons the progressive movement could learn.

Dana Milibank said that in order to save himself, McCarthy destroyed the House.

"This is insurrection by other means: Two years to the day since the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol, Republicans are still attacking the functioning of government," Milibank said. "McCarthy opened the door to the chaos by excusing Donald Trump’s fomenting of the attack and welcoming a new class of election deniers to his caucus. Now he’s trying to save his own political ambitions by agreeing to institutionalize the chaos — not just for the next two years but for future congresses as well... He agreed to allow any member of the House to force a vote at will to 'vacate' his speakership — essentially agreeing to be in permanent jeopardy of losing his job.

"He agreed to put rebels on the Rules Committee, giving them sway over what gets a vote on the House floor, and in key committee leadership posts. He agreed to unlimited amendments to spending bills, inviting two years of mayhem. He agreed to other changes that make future government shutdowns and a default on the national debt more likely, if not probable," Milibank said. "Perhaps worst of all, the McCarthy-aligned super PAC, the Conservative Leadership Fund, agreed that it would no longer work against far-right extremists in the vast majority of Republican primaries — a move sure to increase the number of bomb throwers in Congress."

In Jacobin, Neal Meyer said the left "should take notes" on how the right played hardball.

"Democratic socialists fight for universal health care, an end to the climate catastrophe and mass incarceration, and economic democracy. But if we’re going to triumph over the forces of reaction and win these changes and more, we’re going to need to learn to fight harder and smarter. Today that means taking a page from the American political equivalent of the Mafia: the right wing of the Republican Party," Meyer said. "Every one of the concessions granted to the Right bolsters the morale of its base and will strengthen its hand in Congress in the months to come. The Freedom Caucus racked up significant policy wins, and its leading cadres will now have coveted committee assignments to use as bully pulpits from which to propagandize.

"The Right showed the way here. Not in the demands it made — most of those are specific to its own agenda of taking an ax to the federal government — but in how it made them," Meyer said. "To achieve very different ends, we should be prepared to go to war against Chuck Schumer, Hakeem Jeffries, and others who otherwise have no sympathy for or interest in advancing our agenda. And we need to win powerful bully pulpits from which to propagandize for democratic socialist politics."

In his Substack, Ryan Grim said it's now "up to Biden" to neutralize the Freedom Caucus’s demand for spending cuts.

"Especially in an environment where we’ve seen 8% inflation, that’s a demand for a massive, massive cut," Grim wrote. "The last time Republicans won a debt-ceiling standoff Biden was vice president, and the Obama administration agreed to the so-called sequester. They also agreed to create the Biden Committee, which tried to land a Grand Bargain with then-Rep. Eric Cantor. A Grand Bargain was a Washington fever dream for years, and would include some combination of tax increases and cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other social spending, and the idea is that it will be massively unpopular but if the parties do it together then voters have nobody to take it out on.

"Setting aside the grotesquely anti-democratic sentiment behind it, it’s also not true. For Cantor’s effort, he was thrown out of Congress," Grim wrote. "The big risk of a Biden administration is Biden himself. He spent 40 years advocating for cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and has generally believed that being a hawk on the debt and deficit is good politics. He’s been able to bury those instincts these past two years, and it has paid off politically. But when he was asked in October if Democrats should use their majority to eliminate the debt limit when they had a chance, he said doing so would be 'irresponsible.' With the Freedom Caucus threatening a global default, it’s deeply irresponsible not to have gotten rid of it."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • This went basically how I imagined it would, though it was a little more dramatic.
  • McCarthy's concessions aren't nearly as outlandish as some people say, concerns about the debt ceiling aside.
  • Few people are acknowledging how effective the Freedom Caucus was.

Well, he got the job.

Throughout the Speaker fight, I made one (I thought) rather obvious observation: McCarthy was likely to win the gavel, and would probably make major concessions to do so.

Commentators like Dana Milibank insisting that the Republican party’s right flank’s disruption amounted to "insurrection by other means" strikes me as little more than hysterics. As I said in our last edition before break, while the actual rules being debated were meaningful changes, they were not nearly as absurd as many in the press made them out to be.

In that edition, I said the "motion to vacate" rule — where any member of Congress can call a vote to remove the Speaker — is an "arcane rule" McCarthy could ignore. A motion to vacate has only been used twice since 1910, and we just saw Pelosi successfully remove it as an option during her term as Speaker, so I doubted it would be reimplemented. But even though I personally feel that way, it's impossible to ignore that this rule has been available to Congress for most of its history, and it’s not unreasonable to put it back in place.

Meanwhile, voting on 12 individual appropriation bills rather than one giant omnibus spending bill is how Congress is supposed to work (when members are doing their jobs). Giving members 72 hours to review the pork slipped into bills before taking a vote is just good government, not “insurrection.” Insisting that McCarthy not blacklist certain candidates for fundraising may help shovel money to some politicians I don't like, but it too is not an unreasonable ask from members of the Speaker's own party.

And, if members want to spend their time investigating how the Covid-19 response was handled, or Big Tech censorship, or the unanswered questions about January 6, I don't think those are perilous signals of the end of democracy. Do I expect those investigations to be done in good faith with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) at the helm? No. It'll be political theater and histrionics. And I'm sure they will occasionally veer off into absurdity and also probably stumble onto some startling revelations. But that's true of most of the Congressional investigations we've seen in the last 10 or 20 years. We can criticize the way those investigations are handled once there is actually something to criticize.

The biggest, most obviously frightening issue here is the debt ceiling. We'll probably dedicate a whole issue to it when it's time, but the rough outline is that Congress needs to regularly raise the limit on how much money the United States can borrow since we are always borrowing more money.

Now, I am someone who believes the national debt does actually matter. But I am also someone who worries about the possibility of a raucous and fractured House majority leading us to a default — or even the threat of a default. If we fail to raise the debt ceiling, there is pretty much unanimous agreement that would set off an economic catastrophe. In 2011, the game of chicken alone led to the U.S. having its credit rating downgraded, which hurt the dollar and caused a market plunge.

The other possibility is that this game of chicken leads to cuts in social programs like Social Security, which is a wildly unpopular idea with voters. Without a magic 8-ball, it's hard to know exactly what spending cuts Republicans will demand if they decide to hold the debt ceiling "hostage," but based on the party’s recent history it’s pretty easy to assume. Proposing cuts to popular programs will be even more difficult at a time of high inflation, which makes everything more expensive already. And given the trouble picking their party leader, I have serious concerns that Republicans won’t be able to tactfully force legislative concessions without causing serious harm to the economy. That's the number one issue I'm losing sleep over.

Otherwise, removing any personal biases from the equation about outcome, I think the result of the Speaker vote is something too few people are saying out loud:

They won.

The roughly 20 members who forced these concessions are being called ultra conservatives and terrorists and hostage takers and far-right, but few people are calling them prudent or impactful or smart or effective (with the exception of Jacobin, of all places). They were outnumbered nearly 20 to 1 on the Speaker vote and managed to change the shape of Congress and extract what they wanted despite not putting up a single legitimate alternative for Speaker. It also speaks to a missed opportunity from Democrats, who could have taken any of the first 14 failed votes as an opportunity to vote in McCarthy or a consensus pick without ceding all this ground to the right flank.

In the end, those 20 members got what they wanted. They probably got more than they expected. And there are lessons there for minority factions across Congress.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Hypothetical question for you. What would your reaction have been if Elon Musk had approached you to be part of the Twitter Files dump that Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss have been posting?

— Mark, Carver, Massachusetts

Tangle: I would have bought the first plane ticket I could find to San Francisco.

Seriously: That kind of story is every reporter's dream. At least the real ones. One thing I always tell folks who question the bias and motivations of the media is that, above all else, reporters want to break news first. They want scoops and access other reporters don't have. That usually trumps any personal biases — and it's why a reporter who may have voted for Trump would also report a legitimate negative story about him if they got their hands on it before anyone else.

So, yes... if the richest man in the world reached out to me to offer access to Twitter's internal communications, I would have dropped everything and run to the story.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The Federal Trade Commission has proposed a rule that would ban U.S. employers from imposing noncompete clauses on workers, effectively making it easier for people to switch jobs and join competitors of their current employer. Supporters of the rule change argue noncompete clauses contribute to wage stagnation because switching jobs is one of the best ways to get a raise. Opponents argue that by facilitating retention, noncompete clauses allow companies to promote workers internally and invest in current employees. The Associated Press has the story.


  • 133. The number of voting rounds it took to elect a speaker in 1855, the most in U.S. history.
  • Two. The number of months that vote took to resolve.
  • 203. The number of votes McCarthy got in the first round of voting for Speaker.
  • 216. The number of votes McCarthy got in the 15th and final round of voting.
  • Six. The number of Republicans who voted "present" on the final ballot, allowing McCarthy to win with just 216 votes.
  • 212. The number of Democrats who voted for Hakeem Jeffries on every vote.
  • And some visuals on the Twitter Files:
Images courtesy of Partisan Playground

Have a nice day.

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