Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Speaker of the House, has a tendency to liken himself to Babe Ruth, the American baseball legend. In a speech at the New York Stock Exchange last month, he quoted the sports hero, saying: “You just can’t beat the person who never gives up.”
McCarthy, 58, made history in January when it took 15 rounds of voting in a tortuous week of wrangling with his Republican colleagues to elect him Speaker.
Many thought he would not last more than a few weeks. Almost six months later, however, the congressman from Bakersfield, California, has surprised his doubters by not only holding on to the Speaker’s gavel, but also uniting an often fractious Republican conference.
In a bizarre display of support earlier this week, House Republicans held a fundraising auction for McCarthy’s used cherry lip balm, with controversial Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene placing a winning bid of $100,000.
“Kevin McCarthy has over-performed,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida. “He came into this fight as a big underdog who barely got elected Speaker. He has managed to keep his conference not just united but fairly subdued.”
He now faces his toughest challenge yet, as he seeks to broker a deal with President Joe Biden to raise the debt ceiling — and get any agreement through Congress without invoking the ire of the right flank of his party ahead of a looming June 1 deadline.
If he fails, McCarthy could go down in history as the Speaker who wreaked economic havoc by driving the government into its first ever default.
“[McCarthy] couldn’t not exceed expectations. But that is because they were so low,” said Doug Heye, a former aide to Eric Cantor, who was the Republican majority leader in the House during the last big debt ceiling stand-off in 2011.
“The [Republican] conference at this point is unified behind him, or as unified as it can be,” Heye added. “He is in a situation where we can get a deal, and if that happens, he deserves a lot of credit.”
McCarthy notched a legislative victory last month when he brokered a deal among House Republicans to pass the Limit, Save, Grow Act — a bill that would raise the debt ceiling into next year, impose steep cuts to federal spending and roll back many of Biden’s signature policies.
The bill was dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate. But it was the catalyst for tense talks with the White House that have consumed Washington and put financial markets on pins and needles over whether the two sides will be able to strike a deal and avert default.
“Democrats never expected [McCarthy] to pass a bill . . . I never expected him to pass a bill,” said Mick Mulvaney, the former Republican congressman who was former president Donald Trump’s chief of staff. “But he was able to get that done, and that completely changed the dynamic, and I think it caught the White House off guard.”
The Speaker is now walking a political tightrope as he seeks to strike a deal with Biden without alienating too many members of his own party. Members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of rightwing Republicans, have repeatedly said they will not support any compromise, and Chip Roy, the congressman from Texas, on Wednesday encouraged fellow Republicans to “hold the line” against Biden and the Democrats.
At the same time, many Democrats have also called on Biden to walk away from the negotiating table, and called on the president to invoke the 14th amendment to the US constitution to unilaterally disregard the debt ceiling.
Any deal on the debt ceiling would need to be passed by the majority of lawmakers in the House of Representatives, which Republicans control by a razor-thin margin, before it heads to the Senate. Some congressional aides are already doubting whether a bill can pass both chambers of Congress by the end of the month, reviving the prospect of a short-term extension to the deadline.
Even if a deal wins bipartisan support, McCarthy cannot afford to anger too many members of his own conference — in large part because in exchange for being elected Speaker in January, he allowed for a rules change that means any one House member can call a motion to “vacate the chair”, or invoke a vote of no confidence in his leadership.
The most rightwing House Republicans have made no secret of their willingness to weaponise that change. Matt Gaetz, the Republican congressman from Florida, on Tuesday told Semafor, the news website: “I believe the one-person motion to vacate has given us the best version of Speaker McCarthy and I think he’s doing a good job.”
While the White House has continued to insist that talks with Republicans remain productive, Biden administration officials and Democrats on Capitol Hill have grown increasingly frustrated that Republicans have rejected their offers, including a freeze on discretionary spending for next year.
“It’s increasingly clear to me that House Republicans seem intent on crashing the economy and defaulting on our debt. That’s wrong. It will hurt everyday Americans, and it’s time to end the brinkmanship,” said Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic minority leader of the House.
But McCarthy insists he will clinch a deal — and hold on to the speakership.
“I am not going to give up,” McCarthy told reporters on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. “We are not going to default. We’re going to solve this problem. I will stay with it until we can get it done.”