22 days as House Speaker: How NC’s McHenry went from ‘complete anger’ to making history

Speaker pro-tem Patrick McHenry told McClatchy he felt “complete anger” on Oct. 3 when he slammed his gavel down on national television to recess the U.S. House.

McHenry had just watched his friend, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, be voted out of his leadership position by eight disgruntled Republicans and the entire Democratic conference. Then it was announced that McHenry’s name was at the top of a secret list McCarthy had been keeping — required after 9/11 — of potential successors if something were to happen to him.

McHenry said in that moment several things flooded his mind.

“The situation we’re in,” McHenry remembered. “What just happened to my friend. What that meant for what we could get done. I’m here to get policy enacted into law. That’s what I’m focused on.

“This is a sideshow and sidetracks the whole institution from achieving better policy outcomes for America, for Americans, for our leadership in the world.”

But it was McHenry’s job, based on McCarthy’s list, to get Congress back on track.

Speaker pro-tem

In a moment, McHenry, 48, a Republican from Lincoln County, went from House Financial Services Committee chairman, a position he worked his entire career to earn in January, to leading House Republicans through one of the most contentious moments in the conference’s history.

His new role meant being in the limelight, having a security detail and becoming the brunt of talk show jokes.

“I spend most of my time working on financial market policy,” McHenry said. “This is not stuff that gets front page news.”

McHenry said he has kept a low profile in Congress, works behind the scenes and doesn’t get out in front of the cameras. He said that was an intentional decision through his career.

“So to be thrust into the spotlight, this Congress, specifically the last three weeks, is not my standard day at the office. To have a security detail was a very different experience.”

McHenry and his wife, Giulia, have three young children. He said the schedule he keeps in Washington, which keeps him from being with his family more often, has always been the hardest part of being in Congress.

“For me, the detail, you know — when we put the two booster seats and the car seat into the armored SUV it was a little different than what we know, but my kids handled it well,” McHenry said. “And my wife was incredible. They gave me the balance to withstand the time, and what was happening.”

McHenry shied away from talking specifics about the lengths that Capitol Police went to protect him and his family over the past three weeks. But he said he walked away from it with a new appreciation for law enforcement and how willing they were to put their lives on the line to protect him and his family.

McCarthy’s ‘will’

McHenry wasn’t blindsided in becoming speaker pro-tem on Oct. 3.

He had been a loyal foot soldier for McCarthy throughout his speakership, helping to whip important votes and even secure McCarthy his leadership position.

McCarthy had warned him two weeks earlier that he had picked McHenry as his successor.

“Obviously I’ve known McCarthy for a long time and he’s a dear friend, and so I was willing to help,” McHenry said. “Then, in the days before, we dialed in much more specifically about what it was going to take, what it would mean, and how this would work.”

He viewed it as a friend putting their will together and asking him to execute it.

Like McCarthy, who told McClatchy he thought McHenry would be able to bring policy issues to the floor, McHenry also said the reality of his role was different from what he initially understood it to be.

McHenry noted that no one previously in the country’s history has been asked to serve in this way.

“I didn’t have some grand notion of what it was going to be,” McHenry said. “I just experienced it and made decisions and I went through the process.”

The House was completely paralyzed for 22 days before Republicans finally settled on Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana as their new speaker.

Frustration mounted as the days dragged on. And when war broke out in Israel in the first weekend McHenry was serving as leader, there were pushes for him to take on more power than the parliamentarian felt he was allowed.

When asked why he kept himself restrained McHenry said it’s because he cares for a 200-year-old institution.

“You don’t want to establish some new precedent for what the House can do in the event that this happens,” McHenry said. “And since we’ve not done this in the over 200 years that the House existed, since our constitutional framework existed, then I thought of it in terms that it’s not my opinion, I need to source it with the best advice that I can get and then I need to reason through how I should handle the position and the duties.”

He added that he spent a good amount of time in the first couple of days working through what he should and shouldn’t do. After the first weekend, he believed the best thing he could do for the institution was get on “with the direct provision of power to the speaker.”

“Anything besides that was not in the best interest of the institution or what the Constitution outlines for how the House should operate,” McHenry said. “The speakership was established in the first Congress and I wanted to care for it with the level of respect that you should care for an over 200-year-old institution.”

Willing to be speaker?

At times, it seemed, McHenry might end up becoming the next speaker. He made clear it wasn’t a position he wanted.

He told McClatchy he had made a decision he didn’t want to be in leadership. He wants to move policy and the best way he can do that is as a committee chair.

“We’ve got a divided country, and I would rather go figure out a pathway to cut bipartisan deals, to move policy, and that’s what I’ve tried to do and will continue trying do in committee,” McHenry said.

Rumors began swirling around the U.S. Capitol that McHenry’s lack of interest in the position signaled his desire to leave Congress altogether, but he quickly quashed that notion Wednesday by sending out a news release announcing his reelection campaign.

McHenry told McClatchy that he doesn’t feel that his leadership style is right for the current moment of divided politics.

“And I’m all right with that,” McHenry said. “I feel pretty good about that. I am who I am and I’m pretty comfortable with it. I’m willing to serve and I’m willing to help people, but as far as my ambition, I’ve got a great sense of self and my personal limitations that I do not have for grandiose ambition.“

Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., gavels in the House on Oct 25, 2023, as lawmakers seek to elect a new speaker in Washington. Eric Kayne/USA TODAY NETWORK
Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., gavels in the House on Oct 25, 2023, as lawmakers seek to elect a new speaker in Washington. Eric Kayne/USA TODAY NETWORK

A part of history

McHenry said that in the three weeks he served as speaker pro-tem it never crossed his mind that he would become a part of history books.

He said in his mind, he’d been in Congress for 10 terms and he was trying to do the best he could under terrible circumstances.

But that doesn’t mean McHenry wasn’t aware that he had become the brunt of jokes, late night talk show gags, and internet GIFs.

Some reporters noted he was the quietest speaker in congressional history, because he was careful not to misspeak during his three-week tenure and rarely gave interviews.

Others noted how fast he walked — really fast — making his way from meeting to meeting using tunnels and cars to get through the hoards of reporters waiting on him.

And then there’s the gavel hit.

No one will let him forget how hard he slammed that gavel down after McCarthy was ousted.

McHenry confirms the gavel is OK.

“That’s one of the few mementos that I have from the three weeks,” he said with a laugh.

And no, it wasn’t a historic gavel used by one of the founding fathers.

McHenry said McCarthy had this gavel created specifically for this session of Congress.

And McHenry now owns three: one from the first week of speakers’ negotiations in January, one from when the Fiscal Responsibility Act passed and then the third: the one that will live on in internet GIFs.