WASHINGTON - The night before the start of a humiliating and historic five-day floor fight in Rep. Kevin McCarthy's quest to become speaker, Rep. Matt Gaetz, McCarthy's chief tormentor, handed him a list of demands from a hard-right faction ensuring that if McCarthy's victory did occur, it would only be a pyrrhic one.
It was Monday, Jan. 2, and McCarthy, soon to move into his new suite of offices, rejected the list outright. "You just want to be speaker," he told Gaetz, according to two Republican lawmakers with knowledge of the encounter.
Not so, Gaetz replied. Then he breezily added, according to the lawmakers: "You can have the portrait."
It was a reference to the ceremonial paintings spanning two centuries of 54 House speakers on the walls of the Capitol, and the implication was obvious. McCarthy, R-Calif., would be the 55th speaker but in title only, and a political hostage to Gaetz, R-Fla., and his fellow rebels on the right.
In the three weeks since McCarthy ultimately agreed to the price of the portrait, Gaetz's role in the melodrama has only entrenched his stature as an attention-craving political arsonist adored by the Trump wing of the GOP - but also, House Republican leaders begrudgingly say, as a lawmaker with new powers.
Gaetz, 40, and his fellow antagonists demanded and got a deal allowing a single lawmaker to force a snap vote to oust the speaker, a commitment for a third of the seats on the powerful Rules Committee and an agreement that any lawmaker could force votes on changes to government spending bills. Taken together, the concessions drastically hamstring McCarthy's ability to shape a legislative agenda.
Gaetz "had to be dealt with, even if he was not ever going to vote for Kevin," said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., one of McCarthy's closest allies.
The far right is exultant. "He handed McCarthy a blunt knife and forced him to castrate himself on national television," Raheem Kassam, a British political activist and the editor of the far-right online journal The National Pulse, said in an interview.
Gaetz's chief aim, he asserted, is to bring egalitarianism to a legislative process dominated by lobbyists and powerful committee chairs. As a conservative, he said, he and his allies intend to use this push for greater transparency "to draw the American people into our vision."
His past is not that of a judicious legislator who might be depended on to hold a fractious and wafer-thin Republican majority together.
Two years ago, The New York Times reported Gaetz was the subject of a Justice Department investigation over allegations the congressman had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him, a violation of federal sex-trafficking laws. Gaetz denied the allegation and has not been charged.
He can be as quick to surprise as to repel. He has received accolades from animal rights groups for his opposition to federally funded animal testing. Colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee say they regard him as a productive member, and he was recently seen on the House floor having a lengthy discussion with Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, former member of the Navy SEALs, about providing veterans with access to psychoactive drugs.
During votes in the House chamber, he tends to sit by himself, with no visible signs of discontent. Friends of Gaetz's maintain that three terms of political seasoning on Capitol Hill, in addition to his 2021 marriage to Ginger Luckey, a sales analyst he met the previous year at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump's private club in Palm Beach, Florida, have matured the congressman's approach to politics and the way he conducts his personal life.
Most Vocal Among Dissidents
Animus between Gaetz and McCarthy intensified in April, when audiotapes were released of a conversation four days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, in which McCarthy could be heard telling fellow House Republican leaders that Gaetz's denunciation of Trump critics such as former Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., was "putting people in jeopardy."
The second-ranking Republican leader, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, had chimed in that Gaetz's rhetoric after the riot was "potentially illegal." Gaetz fired back, "This is the behavior of weak men, not leaders." A day later, Scalise offered a public apology - with the result, according to a close associate of the two men, that they had made peace. The same did not hold true with McCarthy, the associate added.
To what extent those personal misgivings factored into the recent speaker showdown carries implications for how Gaetz will work with McCarthy going forward. From the outset, Gaetz framed his opposition as a matter of principle. After McCarthy initially rejected the list of concessions that Gaetz had presented, 19 to 20 Freedom Caucus members and allies proceeded to oppose him through three days and 11 rounds of voting. Gaetz was the most vocal among the dissidents, but also the most tactically agile.
Gaetz's dislike of the aspiring speaker - "I'm never voting for you," he vowed to McCarthy a day after voting began - had become a hindrance in negotiations. By midweek, the McCarthy team turned to Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, as the preferred stakeholder among the Never Kevin group. Gaetz and his chief ally, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., were excluded from the Wednesday night discussions, which yielded nearly all the concessions originally demanded by the hard-liners.
"Everything got fruitful with the Freedom Caucus when he stopped being included in the meetings," McHenry said of Gaetz.
By Friday afternoon, Roy and 13 others had thrown their support to McCarthy. Yet, Gaetz, Boebert and four other Republicans continued to hold out through two more rounds of voting that carried on past midnight.
On the 15th ballot, Gaetz and his five allies finally all voted "present," which enabled McCarthy to eke out victory. Gaetz told reporters he dropped his opposition because "I ran out of things to ask for," but McHenry said Gaetz had not asked for or received any "things" that had not already been handed over. What he had done instead, McHenry said, was demonstrate his singular ability to bring everything to a screeching halt.
"And in that crucial moment, when everything came down to him, he knew the gig was up and saw that the deal on the table was the best he was going to get," McHenry said.
If Gaetz's principal aim was to cement his reputation as the right's preeminent warrior, he appears to have achieved that objective. "He showed that he was the one with the cojones to take all the blows," said Kassam.
A week after the final speaker votes were cast, Gaetz became the first sitting member to guest-host former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's "War Room" podcast. It was the ultimate reward in the MAGA universe, a fellow Republican member ruefully observed, for Gaetz's obstructionist antics.
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