January 28, 2023

NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly talks with veteran Republican Congressman Pete Sessions of Texas about how he’s making sense of last week’s chaos in electing Kevin McCarthy as House speaker.



MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Inside the U.S. Capitol – actually, inside the speaker’s lobby – this is this long corridor. We are just off the House floor. It’s strung with portraits of all the past speakers of the House. So above me, there’s Newt Gingrich smiling down. There’s John Boehner. There’s Nancy Pelosi wielding the gavel up on the wall there. We’ve come over here today to check on the place after all the chaos of last week when it took 15 votes to elect a speaker, Kevin McCarthy. And we’re going to make our way from here over to sit down with one veteran Republican congressman and ask him how he’s making sense of the drama of these last few days.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Second floor, going down.

KELLY: A quick walk out of the speaker’s lobby across the street to congressional office buildings, where we find Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas.

Congressman, it’s good to meet you.

PETE SESSIONS: Thank you very much.

KELLY: I want to start with the news, which is you all just managed to pass the rules package – no drama that I could see. Should that start restoring some faith to those who worried this Congress was not going to be able to get stuff done, even pass basic stuff?

SESSIONS: I think it’s interesting for people to know that what they watched was a – what I call sausage being made in public. I think we remember back after the Election Day and the week after, we did not know the number or the majority for about three weeks.

KELLY: You’re talking about last November elections and you weren’t sure – we were waiting for…

SESSIONS: We did not know how big or who really was in the majority. So things were delayed in terms of decision-making. So what happened is, is that once that was all determined and established and we turned the corner, the negotiations really began. They began on speakership. They began on the rules package. And we also learned a good bit of information about which committees people won beyond – that are decision-making committees. And so all these things then became points of discussion, points that then Mr. McCarthy had to deal with.

KELLY: Kevin McCarthy had to make all kind of concessions to win over the holdouts, this very small band. But that was able to hold up the proceedings. Did he win the gavel but give away the farm?

SESSIONS: I have referred to this because as former chairman of the House Rules Committee, I saw the importance of rules that then bring our majority together that make us more powerful. The question that I had during the week was, did we have a king with no clothes? Do we have a king that in order to gain his kingdom, he gave away those things? That’s to be seen. But we know that if we do not work together, we don’t get what we want. So as long as we’re getting what we want, I think things will work.

KELLY: Stay with the Rules Committee, which, as you nodded to, you used to run and which is so important for everything else in terms of the way this body functions. One of the concessions that McCarthy made was giving – it looks like he’s going to give several seats to the Freedom Caucus on that committee, and they have made clear they may seek to actively undermine the work of that committee. As a former chairman, how does that sit with you?

SESSIONS: What has happened is, is that these members are now going to learn that the time and the consumption – right? – that you have to be a part of at the Rules Committee is a daunting task. So they will now have a say in that outcome. And that’s what we want. There are nine members in the majority on the Rules Committee. So they can’t necessarily determine the direction, but they can sway it.

KELLY: So just to make sure I understand you correctly, you are or are not OK with several members of the Freedom Caucus gaining seats on this committee you used to run?

SESSIONS: Well, I’m all for them being on there. But my viewpoint is, is that in the service of what they do, they’re going to have to defend the outcome, too. And that tends to bring people in closer to the issue of how were you going to resolve it?

KELLY: Another concession – Kevin McCarthy agreed to change the rules so that any one member of Congress can call a vote to remove him. Can he lead effectively in those circumstances?

SESSIONS: The majority is always the decision-maker. So the question is, would this lend one of our members to join the minority in some call? This is why I came up with the thinking this is a king with no clothes. It means a couple things. It means that every single day, you have to ask people, where are you on this bill? And things develop enough in a 435-person operation, we will begin fluctuating wildly on the things that one or two or five people want. And that is not stability. That’s the criticism.

KELLY: And where are you personally on that? You feel like this is the sword of Damocles kind of dangling and brushing Kevin McCarthy’s hair every day?

SESSIONS: If – a couple of people have asked me. Mr. McCarthy knows what I believe about this. I believe that that is not in our best interest.

KELLY: You’re not a fan of this change.

SESSIONS: I’m not in – not a fan of this change. Yes, ma’am.

KELLY: You will have seen and heard a lot of the questions that were raised these last few days over whether the chaos – I’ll use the word – the chaos of last week will result in lasting damage to the House, the U.S. House of Representatives, an institution that you’ve served in how many years now?

SESSIONS: January’s the 25th year.

KELLY: Twenty-fifth year. Do you think it has resulted in damage?

SESSIONS: The people who followed us closest – and I can talk about Texas and I’ve got some other people that are around the country – gave us a mixed understanding about what they were looking at. They wanted resolve to get on with our work. And I think what we were saying is it takes 218 votes, and every one of us are important and we need to listen to each other. And those are two distinctly different methods of looking at what you’re attempting to accomplish. No, I don’t think it’s done any lasting view of us. I think the question is, did it work? Is there something that we have put in our play, in our rules, that would then become something that would make it a larger task that then makes us look dysfunctional?

KELLY: Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas, Congressman, thank you.

SESSIONS: You bet. Hope I did well enough to get invited back.

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NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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