U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy may have jumped the gun Monday morning when he and his staff moved their boxes into the elaborate Capitol office suite that outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi occupied until then.
Republicans in Washington, including McCarthy, have made entire careers out of bashing Pelosi, who served as the unblinking Democratic House leader for the last two decades.
But GOP leaders have also quietly marveled at Pelosi’s ability to marshal her members and win votes on the House floor, both for herself and for the Democratic agenda, over and over again.
Ironically, no day showcased Pelosi’s mastery of the House numbers game better than the day she handed her Speaker’s gavel to Republicans. Because just as as she receded from the House leadership, the incoming GOP majority exploded into chaos, as McCarthy fell 15 votes short of the votes he needed to become Speaker in one vote after another after another.
A new documentary from Pelosi’s daughter, “Pelosi in the House,” shows why Pelosi never had the kind of mutiny on her watch that McCarthy faced on Tuesday.
“Some people count sheep at night,” she tells her daughter in the documentary, “I count votes.”
Pelosi explains that she learned from her father “that it was important to know how to count.” Her dad was a famously ferocious Baltimore politico and taught his daughter not just how to count, but more importantly, how to get to yes and stay there.
“You have to know how many votes it takes to win,” she says.
In a move Pelosi would never have dreamed of, McCarthy put himself forward as House Speaker Tuesday without having the votes in hand to win on the first ballot — and he lost badly. Once weakened, it only got worse from there.
On one side of the 203-19 GOP divide were the more moderate Republicans in the caucus, along with plenty of Donald Trump-aligned MAGA conservatives like Georgia’s U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. On the other were the most rebellious of the GOP’s long-fighting insurgent faction, including Greene’s MAGA ally, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.
“Maybe the right person for this job isn’t someone who wants it so bad,” Gaetz said Tuesday as he nominated U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan for speaker on the second ballot. Moments earlier, Jordan had nominated McCarthy to be Speaker instead.
Why couldn’t McCarthy get to yes right away? To Gaetz’s point, McCarthy has been long known as a man without an ideological center — someone whose greatest ambition has been ambition itself, not unlike former President Donald Trump.
He started his House career as an easy-going chamber-of-commerce Republican. But McCarthy quickly moved to the right, and up the ranks, as soon as politics demanded it.
Forced to abandon his Speaker’s bid in 2015 after conservatives tanked his chances, McCarthy never made the mistake again of drawing a hard line on the right-- until January 6, when he ripped Trump during a phone call as pro-Trump rioters ransacked the Capitol.
“Who the (expletive) do you think you’re talking to?,” McCarthy yelled at Trump then, before blaming the former president for stoking the historic insurrection. But just two weeks later, with a new election on the horizon, McCarthy was at Mar-a-Lago, smiling hand-in-hand with Trump and strategizing about the former president “helping elect Republicans in 2022.”
But even worse than his hungry ambition, McCarthy put his struggle to win the votes for Speaker on public display for weeks at the end of last year— showing everyone watching that he had not yet mastered the only job a Speaker must perfect.
Compare that to Pelosi, who was so well-known for her capacity to whip votes during her leadership that her staff called her “a heat-seeking missile.”
“It’s click-click-click (meaning the sound of her heels walking in the marble hallways toward them), she’s coming for you,” a House Democrat told me once.
During the 2010 Affordable Care Act fight when she was Speaker, her daughter captured Pelosi on camera for the documentary talking about a Democratic member who was considering taking a walk on the controversial measure.
“He said to somebody he expects to get a pass from the Speaker,” she said in frustration. “He’s thinking of a different Speaker. I don’t give out passes.”
Later, she called the member directly. “I had a disturbing report,” she told him, before saying she’d know he’s not a member of “this team” if he voted no.
“I started out nice, nice, nice,” she explained after hanging up. “And then my sledgehammer comes out….I’m trying to pass a bill here.”
The bill passed 219-212.
Democrats won that fight, but lost the House the next year. But Pelosi managed to keep her leadership post then, and stayed on top when they won the House back in 2018, all through a combination of favors owed, money raised, personal affections, and an agreement among House Democrats at the time that they didn’t have anyone who could do the almost impossible job better.
Why does all of this matter? Because the strength of Congress comes directly from the strength of the Speaker, power that she or he can draw on when it matters most. A weak Speaker guarantees a weak Congress, especially in relation to an otherwise stable White House.
By the end of the first ballot Tuesday, aspiring House Speaker McCarthy was out of promises to make or threats to hold over his members’ heads, and had no way clear forward to get to the count he needed.
The Democratic leader, U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, on the other hand, won all 212 Democratic votes on all three ballots with Pelosi’s blessing, nine more than McCarthy, and exactly as many votes as Jeffries and Democrats knew they would win when the day began.
McCarthy, meanwhile, had no idea what was coming next. At least he knows where his boxes are.
About the Author
Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC
Credit: Family contributed photo