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

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy listens to floor proceedings in the House Chamber during the fourth day of elections for Speaker of the House on Jan. 6.
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House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy listens to floor proceedings in the House Chamber during the fourth day of elections for Speaker of the House on Jan. 6.

Updated January 6, 2023 at 5:29 PM ET

Republican leader Kevin McCarthy's protracted fight for the speaker's gavel has moved decidedly in his favor now that 14 of his 20 detractors flipped to vote for him after four days and 12 rounds of balloting.

"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 following the 12th ballot in which he voted in favor of the California Republican for the first time.

McCarthy has engaged in 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.

The House adjourned until 10 p.m. EST Friday after the 13th round of balloting ended with a 214-212 tally in McCarthy's favor, with 6 Republicans voting in protest for Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, a McCarthy ally who does not want the job. Democrats voted for Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

McCarthy needs a majority of all members present and voting to win the gavel, which can fluctuate depending on who shows up. At least two McCarthy supporters, Ken Buck of Colorado and Wesley Hunt of Texas, were travelling back to Washington, D.C. to cast their votes Friday evening after missing votes earlier in the day for personal reasons back in their districts.

"We're going to get it done tonight," McCarthy predicted to reporters Friday afternoon.

Among other concessions McCarthy has made include 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.

Along with Perry, the McCarthy holdouts who flipped in his favor on the 12th ballot include: 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 members and members-elect 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.
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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: this 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 cannot conduct any business, including swearing in new members, until a speaker is 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, of the group of Republicans who did not support McCarthy. "There is 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 is 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, spokesman 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 could foreshadow 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 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.

In the shadow of attack on U.S. Capitol

The possible breakthrough for McCarthy coincides with the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, when supporters of then-President 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.

Meanwhile, President Biden awarded 14 individuals with the Presidential Citizens Medal on Friday afternoon for protecting the Capitol two years ago.

Lawmakers awaiting a speaker in the House also weighed in on the significance of the anniversary.

"As we witness a dysfunctional party of election deniers show their complete inability to govern by holding the House hostage over their vote for Speaker, we must fight harder than ever to defend our democracy from those seeking to tear it down," said California Democrat Barbara Lee.

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 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 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.