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Why House speaker has been Kevin McCarthy's ultimate goal


Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy ensured his place in history today by falling short in the first vote to become speaker of the House. Today marks the first time in a century - 100 years - that a speaker was not chosen on the first ballot.

Gillian Brassil is a congressional reporter with McClatchy DC. She is in the Capitol. Gillian, thanks so much for joining us on a really busy day.


KELLY: Yeah.

BRASSIL: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: I want you to step back because I know you've covered him a long time. Help us understand. Why does he want this job so badly?

BRASSIL: Right. Kevin McCarthy has been in politics since he was in college, so he is Bakersfield through and through. He represents California's new 20th Congressional District, and he's been there his entire life. When he was in college, he started working for then-Congressman Bill Thomas and later went on to the California State Assembly in 2002. And for the last two years of that position, actually, he was the minority leader in the California State Assembly chamber.

So when he came here, elected in 2006, to succeed his congressman that he had been working for prior to that, he quickly rose through the ranks to become the GOP's third in command, later on to become the House majority leader. And in 2015, actually, he had a bid to become speaker at the time but fell short and withdrew before he ended up getting there.

KELLY: Right.

BRASSIL: Obviously, he's the House minority leader as of last term.

KELLY: You're describing someone who's had his eye on this top job for a long time, who feels like he's been training for it. And that is scoring with something I read, some of the reporting by your fellow reporters there on the Hill today. Politico was reporting that he shouted, I earned this job, at his detractors today; that he seems to have a sense that he is owed the speakership. He won this.

BRASSIL: Right. Yes. Kevin McCarthy is someone who definitely tries to get a lot of people on his side. He definitely has been negotiating this for a while. And in that caucus room this morning when he was speaking to his fellow Republicans about securing this position today, he was saying, what do you need, essentially, for me to get this? One of his biggest concessions, actually, that he made in order to try to secure the vote and support was agreeing to a rule that would allow just five lawmakers to call a snap vote at any time to oust the speaker.

KELLY: He - I mean, he's been known over his career and certainly in his years on Congress as a people person, somebody good at attracting allies as he tried to rise through the ranks in his party. How should we square that? How do you square that with the man we're watching today hemorrhaging support, battling with opponents?

BRASSIL: Yes, that's been something that's really defined his career. And I can say that going all the way back to Bakersfield, where people there still know him as Kevin, as someone who walks around in jeans and T-shirts, someone who still orders red sauce and beans at Luigi's, which is an Italian deli there, he definitely knows how to fit the crowd that he's in. He definitely knows how to appeal to whoever he's with at the time. But that seems to have fallen short at this moment as he's tried to make these concessions to get people, especially from the House Freedom Caucus, on his side and supporting him.

KELLY: Yeah. We just have about 30 seconds left. But how is this playing with his constituents? Are they following this drama in Washington? Does he have their support?

BRASSIL: Yeah. I've been in the House all day, so I haven't had the opportunity to speak with constituents directly as of this moment. But I have to say about the San Joaquin Valley in general, where Bakersfield is, a lot of people don't follow the Washington, D.C., sort of politics. They're struggling with a lot of certain other issues as it's a very rural agricultural area that...

KELLY: Right.

BRASSIL: ...Needs a lot of support in different ways.

KELLY: That is McClatchy DC congressional reporter Gillian Brassil. Thanks very much.

BRASSIL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.