WASHINGTON – When Rep. Kevin McCarthy emerged from a messy 15-ballot election and ascended to House speaker, he was emboldened rather than chastened by the fight, declaring that his father taught him early on in life: “It’s not how you start; it's how you finish.”
But as the embattled Republican leader from California rounds the first 100 days at the helm of a slim House Republican majority, it is proving hard to shake off the spectacle of the unsteady launch that has become a defining backbeat to McCarthy’s speakership.
So far, McCarthy has logged surprise successes in the new Congress: The Republican House has passed dozens of bills, many of them bipartisan, including politically potent efforts targeting crime and the COVID-19 pandemic that left President Joe Biden almost no choice but to sign the bills into law.
McCarthy has opened the Capitol more fully to visitors, relishing the onlookers who stop to snap selfies during his impromptu hallway news conferences. He hosted his first foreign leader, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, with a diplomatic flourish, leading a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers standing up to China.
On Monday, McCarthy will deliver a speech at the New York Stock Exchange, another sign of his rising influence.
It's 100 days into the new Congress, and McCarthy’s speakership is what one senior congressional Democratic aide compared to the spotlight on the theater stage, with the audience waiting for the play to begin and then suddenly, the realization there is no script.
McCarthy is performing the role as speaker — second in line to the presidency — but the Republican leader allied with Donald Trump remains stubbornly limited in action because of his uneasy grip on the gavel. Any single lawmaker is able to call for a vote to oust the speaker from office.
As such, McCarthy has been unable to steer House Republicans to start delivering on broader pursuits — the GOP promises for border security or budget cuts to prevent a debt ceiling crisis, for starters. How he handles them will be the defining challenge that makes or breaks his next 100 days.
“This is where McCarthy finds himself,” said Jeffery A. Jenkins, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California who has written about House speakers.
“The power of any single speakership is endogenous,” he said. “This Congress, McCarthy will always have little wiggle room. He will have to walk a tightrope.”
In many ways, it was inevitable that whoever followed the last House Speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would operate differently because of the oversize role she played as one of the most powerful congressional leaders in modern times. She often quips it has become a shrinking speakership under the Republican.
But McCarthy is remaking the speaker's office in his image, including reclaiming a private room just steps from the House floor for meetings. The silver-haired father shuns many of the formal trappings of Congress — he may never return to the televised briefing room at the Capitol for formal news conferences — as he begins to tap into the enormous powers at his disposal.
He often suggests he's being underestimated. House Republicans stunned Washington with some unexpected early victories when they took control in January for the first time in four years.
Republicans all but forced Biden into signing early bills into law, including one to roll back the District of Columbia’s criminal code. Democrats were furious when the White House abandoned efforts to veto the measure and played into the GOP’s tough-on-crime rhetoric.
On other measures, McCarthy found Democrats willing to cross party lines — to create a select committee focused on U.S. competition with China, to require the administration to declassify as much intelligence as possible about the origins of COVID-19 and to require an abrupt end to the national pandemic emergency.
Hard-right critics who withheld their support of McCarthy during the excruciating 15 ballots it took to become speaker until he agreed to their demands seem relatively satisfied at the outcome.
“He’s performed better than I thought he would,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., the past chairman of the Freedom Caucus, in an interview. “I can’t complain.”
To establishment conservative observers, the House under McCarthy is a welcome contrast to the past two years of Democratic party rule in Washington.
“Now there’s actually a check and balance,” said Eric Cantor, a former GOP leader. "He is delivering that every day and very effective, obviously, at holding his troops together.”
But the struggle to become speaker is never far behind, thanks to a Trump-aligned power center in Congress that propped McCarthy up and could just as easily tear him back down.
Trump’s support ensured McCarthy won his race to become speaker, both men have said, but the former president's backing can easily be lost.
As McCarthy balances his own Reagan-styled optimism against the more extremist Trump-aligned populists in his conference, he has kept close to Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a top Trump ally. She has been leading efforts to ease detention conditions for defendants facing some of the most severe charges stemming from the Capitol insurrection.
In another gesture toward his right flank, McCarthy released thousands of hours of the riot video footage about the riot to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who has fanned false conspiracy theories of the attack. McCarthy was among those members of Congress who voted on Jan. 6, 2021, against certifying Biden’s 2020 election victory over Trump.
The House Democrats' campaign arm issued a memo last week saying the new House GOP majority is “too extreme to lead.”
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and a longtime leader of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in an interview that the drawn-out election to make McCarthy speaker “was the most embarrassing week of all in the history of Congress — and I don’t think things have gotten much better.”
Even the House investigations into Biden and his family that were supposed to be a capstone of the new Republican majority have spun into a free-for-all with several committees examining all aspects of the federal government.
“Tough job,” said GOP Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, told The Associated Press about the speaker. “But he’s doing great.”
Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., a Freedom Caucus member who was among the holdouts during the weeklong speaker's election, said it all may make McCarthy “the best speaker” in his lifetime.
“We are proud of him,” said Clyde, whose crime bill was the first Biden signed into law.
“I mean, he’s proven he can fight. He’s proven that he’ll stick it out. Well, that should terrify the White House and terrify the Senate. The House is in control."