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Week in politics: What Kevin McCarthy's election means for the next two years

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This past week in the House of Representatives went a little like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

CHERYL JOHNSON: Adams.

Jeffries.

Aderholt.

McCarthy.

A speaker has not been elected.

A speaker has not been elected.

A speaker has not been elected.

A speaker has not been elected.

The Honorable Kevin McCarthy of the State of California is duly elected speaker of the House of Representatives.

(APPLAUSE)

SIMON: After five days and 15 tries, maybe they were cheering the fact that they get to lie down now. The House chose its next speaker. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: I mean, Kevin McCarthy shouldn't feel conspicuously bad because it took even more votes to select a speaker back in - was it 1859?

ELVING: Yes, that's right, Scott. It took...

SIMON: Well, I only know that because you prompted me with that, but go ahead. Yes.

ELVING: I was impressed. It took 44 ballots in 1859, and that wasn't even the record. The all-time high was 1855, when the vote lasted two months and took a record 133 rounds of voting. But, you know, the 1850s were a long time ago. The country was sliding into civil war at the time. No one wants to look back to that time as a model. And after the Civil War, speaker votes got pretty routine. In fact, there had only been one other speaker since then who needed more than one ballot. And even that was a long time ago, 1923. So this week has been a grueling reminder of just how much division we have in our politics these days and also a reminder of how Congress is getting tougher to manage.

SIMON: Is there a larger message here about Kevin McCarthy, what he did to become speaker or what his leadership kind of has to be like?

ELVING: He closed his speech last night - or early this morning - by saying, quote, "I never give up." And after this week, you have to give him that. But it also seems apparent the man wanted to be speaker so badly he let his adversaries rewrite the job description for him. And we'll find out soon just how much trouble that will cause for him and for the rest of the government.

SIMON: And I must ask, what does it say about the state of the Republican Party that so many people were willing to put their once and future leader through this kind of public display?

ELVING: Well, as more than one of them said last night, it's not a good look. But there was a cadre of about 20 members who really did not care about that. They had an agenda or rather several agendas of their own. They wanted more power for rank-and-file members, especially from members from the House Freedom Caucus if they were members of that caucus and in some cases for themselves individually. And even though they were big Trump supporters, they spurned the former president's efforts to sway them. But in the middle of the night last night, the very last six of them stopped voting against McCarthy and instead voted present. And that was just enough to let McCarthy squeak by.

SIMON: Did the Democrats put themselves in the position of taking some advantage from events over the past week?

ELVING: No. 1, they showed a united front for their own nominee, Hakeem Jeffries, who will now be the minority leader in the House. They also took the opportunity to mark the second anniversary of the January 6 riot that breached the Capitol. They held a ceremony on the steps of the Capitol honoring the police officers who died. At the White House, Biden yesterday honored various officials who had stood up to Trump's pressure to overturn the election of 2020. And Biden was able to spend much of the week on something of a bipartisan high road, visiting a bridge between Ohio and Kentucky with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and proposing a series of tougher border control measures, angering many Democrats, while also proposing new ways to improve access to legal immigration. And he's heading to the border this weekend to highlight what's been the hardest nut to crack in U.S. politics for decades.

SIMON: And he has some opposition within his own party, doesn't he?

ELVING: Yes, because there will always be division among the Democrats as well, especially when you start talking about enforcing various kinds of crackdown on the border with Mexico. But that is an issue that has in the past been able to unite the two parties. That's a high ambition, but it's one that Biden has set out for himself in the next two years.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.