‘In the morning it was morning, and I was still alive,’ wrote novelist Charles Bukowski, presumably after something of a late and drunken evening. One imagines that newly elected Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy must have woken up Saturday with just such a feeling.
‘That was easy, huh?’ McCarthy quipped in his late-night acceptance speech, just a short time after Alabama Congressman Mike Rogers had to be physically restrained as he appeared to lunge at top GOP rebel, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who had just derailed McCarthy’s speakership – again – on the 14th vote.
Thankfully members of Congress don’t carry canes anymore.
For days high political theater abounded and by Friday night the anti-McCarthy holdouts were down from twenty to six, Gaetz and his co-conspirator Rep. Lauren Boebert sat together as member after member pleaded their case to them to end the standoff.
After Gaetz tanked McCarthy on the 14th ballot, the California congressman charged up the aisle to confront the Florida man himself. Thinly concealed exasperation on their faces, until finger-pointing started. Obvious raw emotion boiled over. Eyes rolled. Others looked on uncomfortably or vainly pretended not to watch… or listen.
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama is restrained after yelling at Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama is restrained after yelling at Matt Gaetz of Florida
It’s not clear what set Rogers off, but as McCarthy turned to walk away, Rogers came forward.
Another member grabbed him, putting his hands over Rogers’ mouth. No doubt, he was doing his colleague a favor – stopping one of the most senior members in the House from saying something he couldn’t take back.
He appeared to be yelling: ‘I won’t forget this!’
No, he probably won’t. Politics ain’t bean bag after all.
The scene was almost imaginable in the pre-Trump days, but not unprecedented.
Yes, this was a taste of 19th Century political brawling, not since 1850 had a vote for Speaker beyond 9 rounds of boxing action, but you know what? At the end of the day, it was probably good for the country to see the sausage get made.
Earlier in the day, as Gaetz delivered his nomination for Rep. Jim Jordan, his mentor who didn’t even want the job, Republican members of the body walked out, just stood up and literally turned their backs on the member from whom they had clearly had enough.
And it wasn’t just Republicans behaving badly, even deplorably. Earlier, Rep. Byron Donalds, who had been nominated for Speaker by the twenty renegades had been subjected to racist attacks from Democratic Rep. Cori Bush who called the black congressman a ‘prop’ and left-wing commentators like Joy Reid and Elie Mystal who simply can’t abide a black conservative. Yes, it got that ugly.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., talks to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after Gaetz voted “present” in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023.
An exasperated McCarthy watches on as he is about to lose a fourth vote for speaker
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a McCarthy stalwart had spent most of the week cursing like a David Mamet character while calling the anti-McCarthy crowd ‘terrorists.’ Let’s just say, it got a bit testy.
Neither Gaetz or Boebert voted for McCarthy in the end, but their ‘present’ votes handed the pride of Bakersfield, California the gavel, nonetheless, edging out Democrat leader Hakeem Jeffries 216-211.
On this January 6th, just as was the case on the more infamous one, the insurgents lost, and the will of the majority carried the day, but only after a rhetorically violent battle.
Was this week’s feast of political drama a shambolic display of banana republicanism, or was it just what democracy looks like? The answer is no doubt both.
As George Washington said American government is ‘the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.’ It’s cliche to say democracy is messy, but that’s clearly the case. Did we really think this was easy?
The fact of the matter is that the objectors we’re not simply arsonists and they did get considerable concessions, though McCarthy’s team on Saturday morning told me ‘None of its concessions or a deal, it’s an agreement!’
Well, that’s fine talk but the holdouts like Rep. Chip Roy did get a pound of flesh in the form of a one-member margin to move to vacate the Speaker’s chair, on a host of rules meant to give every congressperson more say and control, and a promise from a McCarthy-linked PAC not to pay for primary challenges to MAGA members.
I asked Team McCarthy if there would be retribution for the renegades, and on that I got ‘no’. I’ll believe it when I see it.
U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (left) talks to Rep.-elect Matt Gaetz of Florida in the House Chamber after Gaetz voted present during the fourth day of voting for Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2023 in Washington, DC.
After the longest vote for the gavel since the Civil War, McCarthy’s victory was confirmed on the final ballot at 12.30am on Saturday morning when four Republican hardliners caved in by voting ‘present’
If Gaetz and Boebert were losers in this soap opera of sophistry, there were winners as well, and not just Speaker McCarthy. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who split with her usual MAGA squad buddies, was key to McCarthy’s victory, as was Donald Trump, who McCarthy credited with giving a helping hand on the late negotiations.
Greene was seen shoving a cellphone at GOP rebel Rep. Matt Rosendale, the screen flashed the initials, ‘DT’. Rosendale waved the phone away.
This was a big deal for Trump who has seen rocky times since most of his hand-picked senate candidates flopped in the midterms.
Had Gaetz successfully bucked the MAGA boss with his opposition to McCarthy, the former president would have seemed weakened to the point of irrelevance, but that was not to be. Whether McCarthy will feel beholden to the former president and 2024 hopeful remains to be seen.
In the end, it is not clear how much this all mattered to the American people, whether the folks eating eggs at Denny’s were arguing over motions to vacate or subcommittee assignments, maybe they were at Waffle House.
But seeing democracy in action is healthy, if nothing else the raw emotions on display made clear that our representatives do care, it does matter to them, and that is refreshing.
McCarthy now presides over a razor thin margin in the people’s House, at any moment just one of his opponents can call for a vote on his removal, but he has a chance to lead, and at the end of the day that was all he was asking for.
There is another Bukowski quote that seems apt today, ‘What matters most is how well you walk through fire.’ McCarthy walked through fire, and yeah, he was singed. The House also appears a bit more burnt around the edges, but it’s a new day and the American ‘experiment’ goes on.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reacts after being nominated for a 14th time in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to elect a speaker