WASHINGTON (AP) — When Congressman Kevin McCarthy emerged from a messy election by 15 votes to become speaker of the House, he was encouraged rather than chastened by the battle, saying his father taught him at an early age: “It doesn’t start like that; that’s how you end up.
But as the embattled Republican leader from California navigates his first 100 days at the helm of a thin Republican majority in the House of Representatives, it’s proving hard to shake the spectacle of the shaky launch that has become a defining blow to McCarthy’s speakership.
So far, McCarthy has had surprising successes in the new Congress: House Republicans have passed dozens of bills, many of them bipartisan, including politically powerful efforts against crime and the COVID-19 pandemic that have left President Joe Biden little choice but to sign the bills into law .
McCarthy opened the Capitol more fully to visitors, enjoying onlookers stopping to take selfies during his impromptu news conferences in the hallway. He welcomed his first foreign leader, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, with diplomatic flourish, leading a bipartisan coalition of anti-China lawmakers.
On Monday, McCarthy will deliver a speech at the New York Stock Exchange, another sign of his growing influence.
It’s 100 days into the new Congress, and McCarthy’s presidency is what one senior Democratic congressional aide likened to the spotlights on a theater stage, the audience waiting for a play to begin and then the sudden realization that there is no script.
McCarthy serves as speaker – second in line to the presidency – but the Republican leader, allied with Donald Trump, remains stubbornly limited in his actions by his awkward grip on the gavel. Any individual legislator may request a vote to remove the Speaker from office.
As such, McCarthy has failed to direct House Republicans to begin implementing broader goals — starting with GOP promises of border security or budget cuts to avert a debt-ceiling crisis. How he handles them will be the defining challenge that will make or break his next 100 days.
“This is where McCarthy is,” said Jeffrey A. Jenkins, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California who has written about House speakers.
“The power of any individual oratory is endogenous,” he said. “This McCarthy Congress will always have a little wiggle room. He will have to walk a tightrope.”
In many ways, it was inevitable that whoever followed the last Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would act differently because of the enormous role she played as one of the most influential leaders of Congress in modern times. She often jokes that it has become a dwindling speaker pool among Republicans.
But McCarthy is remaking the speaker’s office in his own image, including restoring a private room just steps from the House meeting floor. The silver-haired father eschews many of the official trappings of Congress — he may never return to the Capitol’s televised briefing room for formal press conferences — as he begins to tap into the vast powers at his disposal.
He often assumes that he is undervalued. House Republicans stunned Washington with some unexpected early victories when they took control in January for the first time in four years.
Republicans have nearly forced Biden into signing previous bills, including one to repeal the District of Columbia’s penal code. Democrats were angered when the White House abandoned efforts to veto the measure and bought into the GOP’s tough-on-crime rhetoric.
On other measures, McCarthy found that Democrats were willing to cross party lines — to create a select committee focused on U.S. competition with China, to demand that the administration declassify as much intelligence as possible about the origins of COVID-19 and to demand an immediate end to the national pandemic emergency.
Hard-right critics, who withdrew their support for McCarthy during the grueling 15 votes it took to become speaker until he acceded to their demands, appear relatively pleased with the outcome.
“He did better than I thought,” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a former chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said in an interview. “I can not complain.”
For conservative establishment observers, the House under McCarthy is a welcome contrast to the last two years of Democratic rule in Washington.
“There are actually checks and balances now,” said Eric Cantor, a former Republican Party leader. “He does that every day and is obviously very effective at keeping his troops together.”
But the fight to become speaker is never far away, thanks to a powerhouse in Congress that supported Trump, that supported McCarthy and could just as easily unseat him.
Trump’s support ensures McCarthy will win his race for chairman, both said, but the former president’s support could easily be lost.
As McCarthy balances his own Reagan-esque optimism against more extreme populist Trump supporters at his conference, he stays close to Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, a key Trump ally. She led efforts to ease detention conditions for defendants facing some of the most serious charges stemming from the Capitol riot.
In another gesture to his right wing, McCarthy released thousands of hours of footage of the riot to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who peddled false conspiracy theories about the attack. McCarthy was among the members of Congress who voted on January 6, 2021, against certifying Biden’s 2020 election victory over Trump.
The House Democrats’ campaign issued a memo last week saying the new GOP majority in the House is “too extreme to lead.”
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., a longtime leader of the Asian Pacific American Congressional Caucus, said in an interview that the drawn-out election for McCarthy as speaker “has been the most awkward week in the history of Congress — and I don’t think things have improved much.”
Even the House investigations into Biden and his family, which were supposed to be the capstone of the new Republican majority, have become a free-for-all with several committees probing all aspects of the federal government.
“Tough job,” Republican Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, chairman of the Oversight and Accountability Committee, told The Associated Press about the speaker. “But he’s doing great.”
Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., a member of the Freedom Caucus who was among the silent speakers during the week-long presidential election, said all of this could make McCarthy “the best speaker” of his life.
“We’re proud of him,” said Clyde, whose crime bill was the first law Biden signed into law.
“I mean, he’s proven he can fight. He’s proven he can handle it. Well, that should terrify the White House and the Senate. The house is under control.