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How Kevin McCarthy got the votes for speaker — and why it could haunt him

WASHINGTON — After four days of deadlock and embarrassing defeats not seen in a century, House Speaker-elect Kevin McCarthy carved out a path to placate a faction of rebels and secure the job, with promises that could come back to haunt him.

McCarthy flipped 14 of his holdouts and convinced the rest to stand down, and was elected as the 53rd speaker of the House on the 15th ballot on Saturday after overcoming a last-minute wrench that scuttled his best-laid plans on the previous ballot. In doing so, he made a series of concessions that weaken the power of his office and expand the clout of far-right members of the House Republican conference, which critics say could complicate his job of governing under the wafer-thin majority.

McCarthy and his allies sensed they were on the verge of a breakthrough on Thursday night after Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., and others tapped by the now-speaker-elect met with a group of right-wing holdouts — including Reps. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Chip Roy of Texas and Byron Donalds of Florida. The mutiny was led by members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, which is known for wielding raw power and a high tolerance for chaos to force House GOP leaders to bend to their wishes.

McCarthy’s team presented them with a “framework” of House rules changes and other promises that would appease the group — and ultimately prompt six others to vote “present,” a crucial move that lowered the threshold and paved the way for him to succeed.

“We had an encouraging visit in the evening yesterday. And we were encouraged before we went to bed last night that when we got up this morning, we’d have a good work session,” Hill said Friday. “Over the course of the morning, we felt like we’d made the progress.”

Perry, the Freedom Caucus chairman, said Friday he decided to vote for McCarthy after that framework was put on the table. But he also made clear his support for McCarthy was conditional on the terms of the deal holding up.

“If the framework blows up, I’m out,” he told reporters.

The Republican rules package released Friday includes those concessions. It will allow any one member to force a “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair and overthrow McCarthy. It makes it harder for the House to raise spending, taxes and the debt limit. And Perry said the agreement includes “conservative representation” across the House, including by adding members of the right flank to key committees.

Perry and Roy declined to divulge details, but two sources with knowledge told NBC News that the Freedom Caucus was demanding three seats on the powerful Rules Committee, which controls the bills that make it to the House floor.

“It’s critically important that the Rules Committee reflect the body and reflect the will of the people. And that is a part of this framework,” Roy told reporters Friday. “What we’ve agreed to in framework will need to have accountability. We need to be able to continue to trust that we’re gonna be able to execute on what we’ve agreed to in framework.”

The deal is poised to enhance the power of far-right Republicans, at the expense of moderates who want to advance legislation that can win the approval of a Democratic-controlled Senate and President Joe Biden. It could make McCarthy’s task of passing must-do bills like funding the government and lifting the debt ceiling much harder under a slim majority if a group of five Republicans can effectively force him out at any time.

Still, the more moderate or mainstream Republicans put up little resistance to the pact that party leaders agreed to, with some accepting it as the cost of doing business under narrow margins.

“They don’t have to worry about me. I show up for every practice,” said Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa.

Kevin Smith, a former aide to retired GOP Speaker John Boehner, said McCarthy deserves the chance to be speaker but warned that the demands of the hard-right members could hurt the House.

“If certain members of the conference want more leadership roles then they should take that opportunity to demonstrate leadership rather than to tear down the institution,” Smith said.

‘The incredibly shrinking speakership’

Democrats say the reported concessions will make the House ungovernable and cause crises.

“What we’re seeing is the incredibly shrinking speakership,” former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an interview Friday. “It is not a good thing for the House of Representatives. We are the people’s house. We have to negotiate with the Senate. We have to negotiate with the White House. And instead, we are diminishing the leadership role of the House.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the most recent Rules Committee chair, said that putting three Freedom Caucus members on the panel, which is typically split 7 to 4 between the parties, could thwart the new speaker’s ambitions.

“The reason these people want to be on the Rules Committee is they want to screw things up for McCarthy. They want to micromanage every single thing that he brings to the floor,” McGovern said. “He has given everything away, including his dignity, to try to become speaker. And if he becomes speaker, his nightmares just begin.”

“He thinks this is bad — what he’s going through right now? He ain’t seen nothing yet, based on what he’s giving away.”

Some in the GOP said there may be a way to prevent the Rules Committee from becoming a choke point for legislation most of the conference supports.

“Theoretically, you can accommodate that through increasing the size of the committee,” said Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev. “Everything’s possible.”

Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, R-Fla., said isn’t worried about any one person being able to force a vote to vacate the speaker’s chair. “The reality is five Republicans right now can stop everything,” he said.

He said the rules would decentralize decision-making in the caucus. “It’s going to be difficult,” he said, while defending it as a better process than the speaker making all the decisions.

Throughout the closed-door talks, McCarthy was briefing moderates on the possible concessions to conservatives, said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. The message the leader received from his deal-making centrists: We can live with giving Freedom Caucus members committee slots but committee gavels are a “nonstarter.”

“Nobody should get a chairmanship without earning it,” Bacon said. “When you tell someone, ‘Hey I’ll vote for you if you make me a chairman,’ that’s crap. That pisses us off.”

Díaz-Balart said he had received assurances that “there are no deals cut about chairmanships” to committees as part of swaying votes to make McCarthy speaker.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., sounded resigned to the fact that the California Republican would secure the votes as he issued fundraising messages to supporters on Friday attacking McCarthy as “just a vessel for lobbyists and special interests.” Gaetz ultimately voted “present,” helping enable McCarthy’s win.

He saw a silver lining, arguing that the rules changes that the holdouts forced gave McCarthy and his allies “functional straitjackets” and helped “democratize power.”

“I’m very optimistic about where we are right now,” Gaetz said on Fox News on Friday night, calling McCarthy the “speaker-designate.”

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