The McCarthy-Scalise Detente

mccarthy and scalise
Steve Scalise, McCarthy’s outwardly loyal deputy, has taken on a more complex role in this negotiation since one of the saboteurs signaled they’d happily support him as speaker. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
January 6, 2023

To the extent that he’s had a defined strategy at all during this past week of chaotic voting, repeated humiliation, private fuming, and fevered deal-cutting, Kevin McCarthy has been trying to stall for time. All the B.S. about progress and the enduring dialogue between all sides, not to mention all those press leaks, is a thinly veiled attempt to persuade his allies that he can hold on for another vote, another day, all while silencing internal critics and allies, alike, who might be growing impatient or pondering their own career opportunities. 

Steve Scalise, McCarthy’s outwardly loyal deputy, has taken on a more complex role in this negotiation since one of the saboteurs signaled late last year that they’d happily support him as speaker. Ever since, the dynamic has acquired an aura of gamesmanship: On the surface, Scalise must remain ever loyal or risk his own fate amid accusations of traitordom, at least until a McCarthy nomination truly becomes untenable, at which point he needs to be ready with his votes counted. So, on some level, McCarthy’s fevered tap dancing the past few days has been as much about creating optical signs of momentum to advance his bid, but also minimizing any window for Scalise. “As long as he digs in, there’s no Scalise,” a McCarthy ally explained. (Scalise’s office has steadfastly said he supports McCarthy. He sat next to Eli Crane, a “Never Kevin” in the 12th vote, presumably a signal of future arm-twisting before tonight’s 10 p.m. session.)

The stalemate is critical. What has become porn for Democrats and MAGA truthers is an exercise in outlasting the opposition. Despite 15 “no” voters throwing a lifeline to McCarthy today by flipping to “yes,” six die-hard, scalp-hungry antagonistes are still on the floor shooting him down. That leaves just two votes that he needs to break off, and maybe fewer if he can lower the majority threshold via some technicality. One Democrat is out for surgery, but so are a few Republicans. Would enough Democrats have emergencies to get off the floor? Unlikely. This is too rich for them. 

For McCarthy, incremental progress has become an accomplishment itself. That’s why you saw a breathless “siren” tweet from Punchbowl co-founder Jake Sherman reporting that McCarthy had reached a deal with Chip Roy, leader of a dozen or so “no”s. The McCarthy media machine has been feeding the story of incremental progress to keep the Only Kevins and tired Kevin Agnostics from saying out loud that it’s time to move on to Scalise, the obvious alternative waiting in the wings.


The Functional Straitjacket

Even influential conservative blue checkmarks like Ned Ryun and Steve Cortes are giving him breathing room. Instead of outright supporting McCarthy, they’re throwing their support behind the idea that actually this long, drawn-out debate isn’t “messy,” but good for the movement. Tucker Carlson, too, has cheered the chaos as true democracy in action. Ditto the Federalist’s Sean Davis, who said on Fox, “The scandal is not that we’re going to spend a couple of days or weeks picking a Speaker of the House. To me, the scandal is that this process isn’t being repeated over and over again for every single leadership position in Congress and in the G.O.P.” (Naturally scant consideration was given in these conversations to the pressing matters that the McCarthy vote-athon is delaying.)

These MAGA types are also skeptical of Scalise, whose voting record isn’t much different than that of his boss. And, also, by this point, they sort of couldn’t get a better deal than McCarthy, who has given them everything and allowed them to create a bespoke suicide vest in the form of the one vote “motion to vacate.” Would Scalise keep all these offers on the table? It’s unclear. But for Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and Andy Biggs, there’s no bigger prize than McCarthy’s scalp. And according to Gaetz, they’d rather have Scalise than McCarthy, their ultimate establishment pinata.

Increasingly, it looks like McCarthy might be able to squirrel away the votes and grab the gavel. This quote from Gaetz is pretty telling about the direction these negotiations are going in: “I said there’s two ways this ends. And it was either the defeat of McCarthy or it was going to be the rules and personnel paradigm that gave us a functional straightjacket. And we’re working our way to one of those outcomes.”

But even if McCarthy ekes it out, it doesn’t erase the target from his back. Dubbing McCarthy “the weakest speaker in memory,” the Washington Post’s Paul Kane wrote that McCarthy’s concessions could lead to his “relatively speedy exit from speaker’s suites with little to show for his tenure, further destabilizing an institution that is already generously described as dysfunctional.” After all, with McCarthy agreeing that the motion to vacate can be triggered by just one vote, that process of unraveling can start at any time. So Scalise’s moment will just have to wait.