WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. French Hill never doubted Kevin McCarthy's chances of becoming speaker of the House of Representatives.
It took 15 rounds of voting for McCarthy -- the Californian who led House Republicans during Nancy Pelosi's recent speakership -- to win enough support to succeed in his bid. While most Republicans -- including the four members of the Arkansas delegation -- repeatedly backed McCarthy, a minority coalition dragged out the process through protest votes.
The impasse delayed the swearing in of members to the early morning hours of Jan. 7, with C-SPAN cameras in the House chamber capturing the discord in the new Republican majority.
But Hill, speaking to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said that for him and many Republicans there was no other option for speaker but McCarthy.
"From the very beginning, I felt like we were in a very good position to elect Kevin McCarthy as the speaker," Hill said in his Capitol Hill office. "What you don't know is the path and what obstacles you will have between the starting point and the ending point."
Hill and Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs were part of the negotiating team that worked on building support for McCarthy. Hill said he joined the group at McCarthy's request. Westerman was also part of the team due to his chairmanship of the House Natural Resources Committee.
"I've been friends with McCarthy since I've been here, and I've been a strong supporter of his," Westerman said. "I let him know early on I was going to support him and help however I could."
Republicans flipped the House in the November election, setting an end to four years of Democratic control. There were some ideas before Election Day about a "red wave" giving Republicans a comfortable majority, but the party ended up with 222 seats, meaning members can only afford to lose four members when passing partisan legislation.
McCarthy won a closed party election shortly after Election Day to earn the speakership nomination. Five Republicans shared after the vote they would not back McCarthy, putting the Californian's bid in doubt.
Talks unfolded between legislators on ways to secure McCarthy's speakership. Discussions focused on the incoming House rules package, Republicans' spending priorities and committee assignments. Hill said those talks left individuals on both sides frustrated and without a concrete plan.
"Some of us worked with and met with some of those individual members one-on-one to try to ascertain how to move the conversation forward," he said. "Between the shortness of time between then and Christmas, it was tough to get it done."
"It just was not as smooth process between the day after the election and, say, the Christmas break when you would hope that most of that could have been pinned down," Hill added.
Westerman recalled talking to McCarthy shortly after the midterm elections when the challenges to the nomination became apparent. Westerman mentioned the possibility of lowering the threshold on a motion to vacate the chair, which would allow members to call for removing the speaker. Pelosi changed the rule in 2019 to require a majority of either party to agree on offering the motion before a vote.
The party's outliers were interested in lowering the threshold to a single lawmaker.
McCarthy pushed back against allowing such a motion before suggesting a rules package that would allow these votes given five supporting members from the majority party.
"I said, 'That shows that you've got confidence you can do the job,'" Westerman said about McCarthy eventually allowing the single-lawmaker threshold.
McCarthy vowed to challenge the opposition during a Republican conference meeting Jan. 3, the first day of the new Congress. It was at that meeting that Hill and other Republicans recognized the number of "no" votes was more than anticipated.
"I believe you had 20 or so votes that were not yet 'yes,' many of whom had different priorities, and there was no one unifying factor among those no votes," Hill said. "Their lack of consistent requests and the ability to represent that was a little challenging at the beginning."
Westerman stated the lawmakers who voted against McCarthy -- a group as large as 21 individuals at one point -- were risking the direction of House Republicans and endangering the party's legislative goals.
"It became more than about Kevin McCarthy becoming speaker; it became about the Republican conference being the Republican conference," Hill said. "It's like you had a primary, and then you go to the general election and the people who lost in the primary decide they want to jeopardize the general election. We could not let that happen."
While cameras captured the frustration in the House chamber, Westerman said closed negotiations were not contentious. Hill and Westerman credited McCarthy's opponents, with both mentioning Reps. Chip Roy of Texas, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Byron Donalds of Florida, for their willingness to engage in talks on a deal. Roy, Perry and Donalds eventually supported McCarthy's nomination.
Hill said the three helped shape negotiations by representing the dissenting Republican voices and sharing a willingness to confirm a speaker. By the evening of Jan. 5, the third day of the speaker vote, Hill believed McCarthy would receive enough Republican support to become speaker.
After midnight Jan. 7, McCarthy won the speakership with 216 Republicans supporting his nomination. Democrats united behind Rep. Hakeem Jeffries throughout the voting process. Six Republicans voted present, lowering the threshold for McCarthy to secure the speakership.
Republicans did not face a similar struggle with approving the House rules package; all but one Republican supported the rules in a vote.
As part of the concessions with the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, McCarthy agreed to allow a motion to vacate the chair with only one member from either party.
"If people are going to drive you out of the chair, it doesn't matter if it's one or five, and actually, one, I think, is better than five," Westerman said. "If it's just one, they're kind of out there on an island. But if there's five, that's enough to take you down."
The package includes language directed at limiting spending. Republicans rejected a "pay-as-you-go" model of matching deficit spending with tax increases or reduced spending, and replaced it with a "cut-as-you-go" model of preventing the consideration of legislation if it increases mandatory spending within a five- or 10-year budget window. Republicans have shared support for capping spending at fiscal year 2022 levels, yet the rules package does not place steps to reach these amounts.
The package additionally imposes a three-fifths supermajority for tax rate increases.
House Republicans agreed to repeal the "Gephardt rule," which allowed the chamber to automatically provide the Senate with legislation suspending the debt limit once the House adopts a budget resolution. The move requires the House to consider the budget and the debt limit as separate items.
"If you look at the rules package, it was basically the same rules package that we came up here with intentions of passing that the whole conference had looked at," Westerman said.
As part of the deal securing McCarthy's speakership, the House Freedom Caucus is expected to have better committee representation. Republicans, including McCarthy, have denied the existence of an addendum with further concessions to caucus members.
"There is nothing secret written in writing about any of this," Hill said. "It's all being handled in the transparency of the House, meaning everything we have said about the rules is in the rules package."
When speaking to reporters during the speaker elections, Westerman called electing a speaker "the easy part," citing Republicans' slim majority. Now with lawmakers considering legislation, Westerman recognizes Republican leaders will have to "work bills very hard" to ensure Republicans can accomplish the goals of their "Commitment to America" agenda.
"If there's a member of our conference, for whatever reason they have back in their district, they can't support a piece of legislation that's very important to our conference, you can't wait until you get on the floor and you don't have the votes on the board," he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"You've got to visit with them beforehand, find out what their issues are and how you can address those issues."
Hill agreed that communication is necessary given the slim majority, adding House Republicans emerged from their "trial by fire" speaker elections with a better mind-set.
"Nobody said it was an easy job," he said. "It's a job that requires work and conversation."