WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer spent the longest speaker election in more than a century trying to mend a bitter divide within the Republican Party.
The Minnesotan has traded leading the House GOP’s campaign arm for the critical task of whipping votes in the narrow Republican majority. But before he could even be sworn in for a new term, Emmer was caught in the middle of a multiday stalemate over Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s future.
With the help of Emmer and others, McCarthy won the top job in the House on the 15th ballot after opposition from a small group of hard-liners blocking the Californian’s ascension finally gave way.
“People in this place know that when I tell them something, I don’t blow smoke. They can trust me,” Emmer said in an interview. “Because I also tell them the things they don’t want to hear.”
Georgia Republican Rep. Andrew Clyde, who voted against McCarthy before backing him, called Emmer “very instrumental.”
“He helped bridge the trust gap,” Clyde said.
Yet more ordeals likely await Emmer as the third-highest-ranking House Republican.
Emmer is primed to be at the heart of Republican policymaking during a span that could define the party’s message heading into the 2024 election. The GOP has major decisions ahead on government funding and is on track for a showdown with Democrats over the debt ceiling.
“The speaker’s race really put on display how much of a weak whip Emmer is going to be,” Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar said.
House Republicans’ ambitions are restrained by the reality that they will have to compromise if they want to enact major changes, given that Democrats control the Senate and the White House.
“In the 118th Congress, nothing’s easy,” said Montana GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke.
That stark truth could mean more rancorous clashes ahead for the GOP.
“There are (an) enormous number of challenges to come,” said Republican North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, an Emmer ally who also helped McCarthy win. “But (for Emmer) to come right out of the gate and show his capacity in a key moment, it’s quite a confidence builder for all of us. And I’m really glad he’s in the spot that he’s in.”
Hopes of a more robust Republican majority were dashed by a dicey midterm performance that won party control of the House by just a few seats. That thin margin meant negotiations within the party to help ensure McCarthy’s path, curtailing the latitude and clout available to the speaker while emboldening far-right conservatives in the House.
Emmer was sitting next to Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz during a chaotic final stretch in the speaker race. Gaetz exchanged words with McCarthy after not voting for him — voting present instead — on the 14th ballot. While McCarthy walked away, Alabama GOP Rep. Mike Rogers moved aggressively toward Gaetz and had to be held back by another lawmaker.
Soon afterward, McCarthy won the speaker race.
“You can’t tell somebody what to do in this place,” said Emmer. “That is not the way it works.”
At times, journalists were tweeting movements in and out of Emmer’s new whip office as Republicans tried to resolve the speaker standoff.
“This office was probably central to that whole effort,” Emmer said, adding, “Kevin earned it himself.”
Other leading Republicans also aided McCarthy, with some in the GOP directly crediting former President Donald Trump’s influence. But a variety of House GOP members commended Emmer’s work.
“The essential talent in that role is someone who can, not in a BS way, in a real way, bring the people together to make sure we ride together and get real things accomplished,” said North Carolina GOP Rep. Dan Bishop, a McCarthy holdout who switched after multiple rounds and noted Emmer’s ability to diffuse animosity. “He’s for real.”
Democrats are already fearful that the speaker votes foretell more drama dominating the House, especially when it comes to how Republicans will navigate the stark political and financial challenges of the debt ceiling.
“They are a deeply divided party,” said Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, a former House majority leader. “They have many members who are ideologically hidebound and unable to compromise and work with the majority of their own party, forget about us. And I think that poses great challenges to the speaker and to the Republican leadership.”
Republicans are telegraphing an appetite for major spending cuts as well, a push that likely only gained momentum on the right after McCarthy had to woo ultra-conservatives.
“(The) debt ceiling is going to be fun,” said GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert, a McCarthy holdout who touted concessions that were made. “This is a fight that we have been ceding for quite some time and we have to get the spending under control.”
In these early days of the Republican-led House, Emmer appears energized about the job ahead, complaining about Democrat Joe Biden’s presidency and the way former Speaker Nancy Pelosi ran the House.
“It will be up to our membership to put forward, this is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to solve this problem for the long term,” Emmer said on the debt ceiling. “So it’s not just ‘Groundhog Day.’ “
Emmer’s majority whip role is the latest step in a methodical rise for the fifth-term lawmaker, who has taken his political career to new heights in Congress after he narrowly lost the Minnesota governor’s race back in 2010.
And it could prove to be one of the toughest jobs on a divided Capitol Hill for the next two years.
“It’s not our way or the highway, we have to be working with the Senate,” Emmer said. “I think that’ll be the next great challenge as we continue to come together as a team on this side.”
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This story was originally published January 14, 2023 8:22 PM.