House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks after a closed-door meeting with the GOP Conference as he pursues the speaker of the House role when as the 118th Congress convenes, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
WASHINGTON — Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was dealt a historic defeat in first-round voting Tuesday to become House speaker, vowing to try again but sending the new Congress into opening day tumult as conservative colleagues opposed his leadership.
McCarthy had pledged a “battle on the floor” for as long as it takes to overcome right-flank fellow Republicans who were refusing to give him their votes. But it was not at all clear how the embattled GOP leader could rebound after becoming the first House speaker nominee in 100 years to fail to win the gavel from his fellow party members on the initial vote.
McCarthy strode into the chamber, posed for photos, and received a standing ovation from many on his side of the aisle after being nominated by the third-ranking Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik, who said he “has what it takes” to lead House Republicans.
“No one has worked harder for this majority than Kevin McCarthy,” said Stefanik, R-N.Y.
But a challenge was quickly raised by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a conservative former leader of the Freedom Caucus, who was nominated by a fellow conservative as speaker. In all, 19 Republicans peeled away, denying McCarthy the majority as they cast votes for Biggs or others in protest.
The mood was tense, at least on the Republican side, as lawmakers rose from their seats, in a lengthy first round of in-person voting. Democrats were joyous as they cast their own historic votes for their leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the first Black person to lead a major American political party.
“We may have a battle on the floor, but the battle is for the conference and the country,” McCarthy said earlier at the Capitol.
McCarthy emerged from a contentious closed-door meeting with fellow House Republicans unable to win over detractors and lacking the support needed to become speaker. He vowed to fight to the finish — even if it takes multiple tries in a public spectacle that would underscore divisions in his party and weaken its leadership in the first days of the new Congress.
A core group of conservatives led by the Freedom Caucus and aligned with Donald Trump’s MAGA agenda were furious, calling the private meeting a “beat down” by McCarthy allies and remaining steadfast in their opposition to the GOP leader.
“There’s one person who could have changed all this,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a leader of Trump’s effort to challenge the 2020 presidential election.
The group said McCarthy refused the group’s last-ditch offer for rules changes in a meeting late Monday at the Capitol.
“If you want to drain the swamp you can’t put the biggest alligator in control of the exercise,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
“He eagerly dismissed us,” said Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.
Lawmakers convened in a new era of divided government as Democrats relinquish control of the House after midterm election losses. While the Senate remains in Democratic hands, barely, House Republicans are eager to confront President Joe Biden’s agenda after two years of a Democratic Party control of both houses of Congress.
Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had gaveled closed the last session moments earlier, moving aside for new Democratic leadership, to a standing ovation from colleagues on her side of the aisle.
The chaplain opened with a prayer seeking to bring the 118th Congress to life.
But first, House Republicans had to elect a speaker, second in succession to the presidency.
Even with an endorsement from former President Trump, McCarthy fell short.
Democrats enthusiastically nominated Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-.N.Y., who is taking over as party leader, as their choice for speaker — a typically symbolic gesture in the minority but one that took on new importance as Republicans were in disarray.
“A Latino is nominating in this chamber a Black man for our leader for the the first time in American history,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, the third-ranking Democrat, in nominating his colleague.
The morning meeting of House Republicans turned raucus ahead what’s traditionally a celebratory day as newly elected members arrive to be sworn into office. Families in tow, the members of the new Congress prepare to be sworn into the House and Senate for the start of the two-year legislative session.
A new generation of Trump-aligned Republicans led the opposition to McCarthy. They don’t think McCarthy is conservative enough or tough enough to battle Democrats. It’s reminiscent of the last time Republicans took back the House majority, after the 2010 midterms, when the tea-party class ushered in a new era of hardball politics, eventually sending Speaker John Boehner to an early retirement.
“Nothing’s changed,” said Rep. Bob Good, R-Va. “The problem is Kevin McCarthy.”
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