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US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy emerges as chief Biden antagonist


Kevin McCarthy barely survived a bruising battle in January to become the 55th speaker of the House of Representatives, quelling a right-wing revolt in his Republican Party to achieve his lifelong dream.

Just a few months later, the ambitious nine-term congressman from California is engaged in another tense standoff, this time with Democratic President Joe Biden over raising the debt ceiling.

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The 58-year-old McCarthy has taken center stage as Republican lawmakers and the White House hold talks to avert a catastrophic US debt default before a June 1 deadline.

The two sides are trying to strike a deal to raise or suspend the US government’s borrowing cap, known as the debt ceiling, in order to cover existing federal spending commitments.  

But Republicans in Congress have so far refused to do so without a commitment from Democrats to cut spending next year and to start bringing down the country’s $31-trillion-plus debt burden.

For McCarthy, it’s another high-wire act as he seeks to placate the uncompromising right-wing of the Republican Party while staving off a potential economic crisis.

To assume the speakership in January, which took a record 15 rounds of voting, McCarthy had to make concessions to a bloc of around 20 far-right Republicans, which some analysts said would make the House ungovernable.

Among the concessions was a rule change that makes it possible for a single member to call a vote for a new speaker of the House, where Republicans won a razor-thin majority in last November’s midterm elections.

The speaker wields huge influence in Washington by presiding over House business and is second in line to the presidency, after the vice president.

– Networker –

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.

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.

McCarthy, who was first elected to Congress in 2006, 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 the gray-haired, impeccably dressed lawmaker 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.

McCarthy and former president Donald Trump, who is making a third White House run, enjoyed a largely cordial relationship until the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol by Trump supporters.

McCarthy berated Trump over the attack on Congress — but days later was the first top Republican to make a pilgrimage to Florida to visit the former president.

McCarthy’s most controversial moments tend to be when he is called out for a lack of candor.

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.

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