WASHINGTON – House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is nothing if not a political survivor.
Underestimated from the start, the Republican who cruised around his California hometown of Bakersfield and stumbled into a career in Congress was never taken too seriously by the Washington establishment.
With overwhelming House passage of the debt ceiling and budget deal he negotiated with President Joe Biden, the emergent speaker proved the naysayers and eye-rollers otherwise. A relentless force, he pushed a reluctant White House to the negotiating table and delivered the votes from his balky House GOP majority to seal the deal.
“You still ask the same questions each week: Do you think you can pass the bill this week? Do you think you will still be speaker next week,” McCarthy chided reporters after Wednesday's late-night vote.
“Keep underestimating us," he said, "and we’ll keep proving to the American public that we’ve never given up.”
The Senate passed the bill Thursday night, sending it to Biden for his signature.
The whole drama is a turn-of-the-narrative for McCarthy, who came to office viewed as one of the weakest House speakers in modern memory, but has strengthened his grip on power during the debt ceiling fight.
While hard-right conservatives are still reviving calls for McCarthy's ouster, complaining the deal he struck with Biden did not go far enough in their demands to cut spending, their voices are muted for now, lacking the numbers needed to execute their plan.
And perhaps most importantly for McCarthy, who has worked hard to maintain a relationship with Donald Trump, the former president gave a subdued nod of approval to the deal struck by the ally he used to affectionately call “My Kevin.”
“I would have taken the default if you had to, if you didn’t get it right,” Trump said Wednesday on Iowa radio.
“But that’s not where they were going. And I think it was an opportunity, but it was also — they got something done. Kevin worked really hard, everybody worked very hard, I mean, with a lot of good intention.”
The 58-year-old arrives at this moment after an unexpected path to power, landing in Congress in 2007 a rare Republican from liberal California, among a small class of GOP freshmen who bucked that election's Democratic wave. He rose swiftly to leadership as a political strategist running the party's campaign arm in the House, not a policy wonk.
But after suddenly dropping out of the speaker's race in 2015 to replace John Boehner after an earlier generation of hard-right Republicans drove the then-speaker to early retirement, McCarthy tried again at the start of this year once Republicans swept to power in last fall's midterm elections.
Over a grinding week in January, McCarthy bartered, bargained and blustered his way into the powerful speaker’s office with the history-making spectacle of 14 failed votes. He finally claimed the gavel on the 15th try, after wearing out his colleagues and conceding to many of his hard-right critics' demands for power sharing.
Those same hard right Republicans now threaten McCarthy's every move.
Powered by the House Freedom Caucus, the conservatives' ability to try ousting the speaker is baked into the House rules, a concession McCarthy made to win the gavel. It gives any single lawmaker to call for a vote to “vacate the chair” and bounce the speaker with a majority House vote.
Deeply frustrated by the debt ceiling deal McCarthy cut with Biden, the hard-right conservatives immediately flexed their power this week threatening to remove him from office.
“There’s going to be a reckoning,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas. “It's war,” warned Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C. , in a tweet.
After Wednesday's roll call, when Democrats delivered more votes than Republicans to pass the debt ceiling package, Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado predicted the vote to oust the speaker would be underway in a matter of weeks.
“Stay tuned,” he said.
But the opposite has happened as rank-and-file Republicans are lifting the speaker up, rather than tearing him down.
Buoyed by the package that is on its way to becoming law, Republicans cheered the $1.5 trillion in spending cuts they achieved by holding their slim majority together to take the fight to the White House, and bringing Democrats to support the compromise.
They vowed to keep pressing for more.
“Kevin McCarthy’s stock is trading higher now than it has in any point of his congressional career,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., another ally. “I would be quite surprised by any motion to vacate.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has emerged as one of McCarthy's closest allies, swatted back ideas about ousting him from office. “American people would be thoroughly disgusted,” she said, if Republicans squandered their majority with such infighting.
Within weeks of taking power, McCarthy asked for a meeting with Biden at the White House, the looming debt ceiling vote, as he tells the story, was top of mind. As they met, he says he wanted to start talks.
The White House promptly ignored the new speaker.
Younger than the previous generation of congressional leaders, McCarthy was never seen as a serious player by the Democrats. The president has been in elected office since McCarthy was a young man running a sandwich shop counter and becoming immersed in Reagan-era politics.
For nearly 100 days, as the speaker tells it, the president refused to meet over the debt limit. The White House says Biden wasn't about to risk a U.S. default by haggling over budgets. The Democrats demanded that the new Republican majority “show us their plan” — knowing it would be almost impossible for McCarthy to pass anything from his disjointed, razor-thin House Republican majority.
Then McCarthy did what most of official Washington doubted he ever could do — he persuaded House Republicans to pass their own debt ceiling and spending cuts plan.
It was a stunning feat for House Republicans, a confidence-builder for the new majority after having floundered and failed for years to coalesce around their priorities. For some fiscal conservatives, it was the first time ever they voted to lift the nation's borrowing cap.
And it was an opening offer to the White House.
The week after the vote, the president drew McCarthy and the other congressional leaders at the White House. They all agreed to launch negotiations as they stared down the June deadline to lift the nation's borrowing limit, now $31 trillion, or risk a cascading federal default and economic upheaval.
Outwardly, McCarthy looked like he was breezing through nearly three weeks of grinding negotiations —– bike riding on the National Mall, carting tortilla chips into the Capitol for reporters staking out his office, posing for selfies with tourists under the dome.
When he finally announced that he and Biden had reached a deal the Sunday evening of Memorial Day weekend, the exhaustion was apparent, his voice raspy and remarks short.
“Underestimated? For damn sure. Kevin McCarthy has always been underestimated,” said one of the deal negotiators, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.. The votes, he said, "prove out why that is the wrong proposition here in Washington.”
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Kevin Freking, Farnoush Amiri, Stephen Groves and Jill Colvin contributed to this story.