Congress splits as Republicans take control of US House

Narrowly secure legislative base to oppose President Biden’s agenda: Top Republican McCarthy closer than ever to US Speaker's gavel

Published: 08:45 AM, 17 Nov, 2022
Congress splits as Republicans take control of US House
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Republicans on Wednesday took control of the US House of Representatives from Democrats, networks said, narrowly securing a legislative base to oppose President Joe Biden's agenda for the final two years of his term –- and leaving power in Congress split.

The slim Republican majority in the lower house of the US legislature will be far smaller than the party had been banking on, and Republicans also failed to take control of the Senate in a historically weak performance in the November 8 midterm elections.

NBC and CNN projected the victory for Republicans with at least 218 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives -- the magic number needed to take control. This came a week after millions of Americans went to the polls for the midterms, which typically deliver a rejection of the party in the White House.

Biden congratulated top House Republican Kevin McCarthy "on Republicans winning the House majority" and added that he was "ready to work with House Republicans to deliver results for working families."

Last week's vote, he said, was "a strong rejection of election deniers, political violence and intimidation" and demonstrated "the strength and resilience of American democracy."

Tweeting soon after the projection was called, McCarthy said that "Americans are ready for a new direction, and House Republicans are ready to deliver."

The news came one day after former president Donald Trump -- who loomed large during the election cycle, and whose endorsement appears to have doomed some of his party's candidates -- announced a new run for the White House.

With inflation surging and Biden's popularity ratings cratering, Republicans had hoped to see a "red wave" wash over America, giving them control of both houses and hence an effective block over most of Biden's legislative plans.

But instead, Democratic voters -- galvanized by the Supreme Court's overturning of abortion rights and wary of Trump-endorsed candidates who openly rejected the result of the 2020 presidential election -- turned out in force.

And Republicans lost ground with candidates rejected by moderate voters as too extreme.

- 'Officially flipped' -

Biden's party flipped a key Senate seat in Pennsylvania and held onto two more in battleground states Arizona and Nevada, giving them an unassailable majority in the upper chamber with 50 seats plus Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote.

A Senate runoff election in Georgia set for next month could see the Democrats ultimately improve their majority in the upper house.

The Senate oversees the confirmation of federal judges and cabinet members, and having the 100-seat body in his corner will be a major boon for Biden.

Meanwhile on Tuesday McCarthy won his party's leadership vote by secret ballot, putting him in prime position to be the next speaker, replacing Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

The 57-year-old congressman from California, a senior member of House Republican leadership since 2014, fended off a challenge from Andy Biggs, a member of the influential far-right Freedom Caucus.

But potential far-right defections could yet complicate his path when the full chamber votes in January.

McCarthy now begins what is expected to be a grueling campaign to win the consequential floor vote on January 3, when the House of Representatives' 435 newly elected members -- Democrats and Republicans -- choose their speaker, the third most important US political position after president and vice president.

McCarthy closer than ever to US Speaker's gavel

Spurned by his party once before in his bid to lead the US House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy is on a path to grasping the Speaker's gavel -- and becoming second in line to the presidency.

He has won a leadership vote that was a symbolic loyalty test among Republicans, but it solidifies McCarthy, 57, as the frontrunner when the Speaker of the House of Representatives is elected on the first day of the new Congress in January.

And McCarthy got more good news as expected on Wednesday as his party clinched control of the House with at least 218 of its 435 seats. With some races still undecided, the final cushion will still be much thinner than party leaders had expected from last week's mid-term elections.

"Republicans have officially flipped the People's House!" McCarthy tweeted after TV networks called the House race for his party. This means Congress will be split, as Democrats retained the Senate.

"Americans are ready for a new direction, and House Republicans are ready to deliver," he continued.

McCarthy has led the Republican caucus in the lower house since 2014, and has strived to replace Democrat Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, who is next in the line of succession after the Vice President.

- Underrated? -

McCarthy -- who represents the conservative enclave of Bakersfield in liberal California -- has been in politics for most of his adult life, as a state legislator and US lawmaker in Washington.

He doesn't have any major legislative achievements to his name and has never chaired a House committee, unlike each of the last three speakers.

But he is a consummate networker, admired for his prolific fundraising and his people management -- meeting his members' demands when he can and assuaging their concerns when he cannot.

"I actually think that he is a bit underestimated," Brendan Buck, a former McCarthy staffer and an aide to the last two Republican speakers, said on his new political podcast, "Control."

"There is this narrative surrounding him that he has always been the sidekick and maybe someone who is not up to the job of being speaker. But I think that generally misunderstands what the role of speaker is."

With a Democratic White House, Republicans see it as a relatively straightforward task: object to every policy proposal by President Joe Biden and dog his administration with investigations.

- 'My Kevin' -

McCarthy has had a handful of run-ins with far-right figures in his party, whom he is accused of failing to rein in, and one of them, Arizona congressman Andy Biggs, says he will challenge McCarthy and that "his speakership should not be a foregone conclusion."

Outside of his own caucus, McCarthy and former president Donald Trump have been useful to one another since the business magnate first took office, enjoying a largely cordial relationship.

The mercurial Trump -- who has announced he will make his third White House run -- would have no difficulty wrangling enough support among his House allies to block McCarthy's ascent, but he remains supportive of the politician he calls "my Kevin."

McCarthy berated Trump over the 2021 attack on the US Capitol -- but days later was the first top Republican to make a pilgrimage to Florida to visit the former president.

The trip may have upset Democrats, but it allowed Trump to move on. McCarthy stopped criticizing his powerful patron and the pair continue to speak regularly.

The son of a firefighter and grandson of a cattle rancher, McCarthy grew up in a working-class household.

He married his high school sweetheart and the couple still live in the first house they bought, where they raised two children.

- Biggest blunder -

After four years in the California assembly, McCarthy entered the US House of Representatives in 2007, steadily working his way up and becoming minority leader in 2019.

He ran for speaker in 2015 but dropped out amid a right-wing backlash to perhaps the biggest blunder of his career, over the deadly 2012 Benghazi attack.

Support dropped away after he said the panel investigating the Islamist assault on US facilities in the Libyan city was actually created to hurt Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

But McCarthy's most controversial moments tend to be when he is called out for a lack of candor rather than an overabundance.

In one particularly embarrassing example, The New York Times reported that he informed colleagues he was going to advise Trump to resign over his role in the 2021 insurrection.

McCarthy denied making the comments -- until the Times reporters released a tape.

McCarthy has also raised eyebrows over recent comments on his party's plans for 2023, which he has suggested might include reining in aid to help Ukraine in its war with Russia.

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