WASHINGTON — Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was failing anew to win the House speakership Wednesday in dramatic fourth round voting as the chamber plunged into Day Two of the new Congress with no end in site to the political chaos Republicans have created.
McCarthy fared no better than he did on opening day ballots as conservative holdouts rejected him with their votes. No minds appeared to have changed, and he was falling far short of the 218 votes typically needed to win the gavel.
The California Republican vowed to keep fighting despite losing in multiple rounds of voting that threw the new majority into tumult a day earlier.
The House gaveled in at noon, and a McCarthy ally quickly re-nominated him for the job with a rousing speech designed to peel off detractors.
“Sure, it looks messy,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis. But democracy is messy, he said. “The American people are in charge.”
McCarthy himself entered the chamber saying, “We’ll have another vote.”
But the dynamic proved no different from Day One, as Democrats re-upped their leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, for speaker, and a right-flank leader from the Freedom Caucus offered a challenge to McCarthy — nominating Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., in another history making moment. Both Jeffries and Donalds are Black.
“This country needs leadership,” said Rep. Chip Roy, the Texas Republican noting the first time in history two Black Americans were nominated for the high office, and lawmakers from both parties rose to applaud.
It was the first time in 100 years that a nominee for House speaker could not take the gavel on the first vote, but McCarthy appeared undeterred. Instead, he vowed to fight to the finish, encouraged, he said, by former President Donald Trump to end the disarray and pull the Republican Party together.
Early Wednesday, Trump publicly urged Republicans to vote for McCarthy: “CLOSE THE DEAL, TAKE THE VICTORY,” he wrote on his social media site. He added: “REPUBLICANS, DO NOT TURN A GREAT TRIUMPH INTO A GIANT & EMBARRASSING DEFEAT.”
The House tried again on Wednesday after Tuesday’s stalemate essentially forced all other business to a standstill, waiting on Republicans to elect a speaker.
“Today, is that the day I wanted to have? No,” McCarthy told reporters late Tuesday at the Capitol after a series of closed-door meetings. Asked if he would drop out, McCarthy said, “It’s not going to happen.”
President Joe Biden, departing the White House for a bipartisan event in Kentucky with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, said “the rest of the world is looking” at the scene on the House floor.
“I just think it’s really embarrassing it’s taking so long,” Biden said. “I have no idea” who will prevail.
The disorganized start to the new Congress pointed to difficulties ahead with Republicans now in control of the House.
Tensions flared among the new House majority as their campaign promises stalled out. Without a speaker, the House cannot fully form — swearing in its members, naming its committee chairmen, engaging in floor proceedings and launching investigations of the Biden administration. Lawmakers’ families had waited around, as what’s normally a festive day descended into chaos, with kids playing in the aisles or squirming in parents’ arms.
But it was not at all clear how the embattled GOP leader could rebound to win over right-flank conservatives who reject his leadership. It typically takes a majority of the House to become speaker, 218 votes — though the threshold can drop if members are absent or merely vote present, an strategy McCarthy appeared to be considering.
McCarthy won no more than 203 votes in three rounds of voting, losing as many as 20 Republicans from his slim 222-seat majority,
Not since 1923 has a speaker’s election gone to multiple ballots, and the longest and most grueling fight for the gavel started in late 1855 and dragged out for two months, with 133 ballots, during debates over slavery in the run-up to the Civil War.
“Kevin McCarthy is not going to be a speaker,” declared Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., one of the holdouts.
A new generation of conservative Republicans, many aligned with Trump’s Make America Great Again agenda, want to upend business as usual in Washington, and were committed to stopping McCarthy’s rise without concessions to their priorities.
In many ways, the challenge from the far-right was reminiscent of the last time Republicans seized power in the House, when tea party Republicans brought hardball politics and shutdown government after winning control in the 2010 midterm elections.
As the spectacle of voting dragged on, McCarthy’s backers implored the holdouts to fall in line for the California Republican.
“We all came here to get things done,” the second-ranking Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise, said in a speech nominating McCarthy for the vote and urging his colleagues to drop their protest.
Railing against Democratic President Joe Biden’s agenda, Scalise, himself a possible GOP compromise choice, said, “We can’t start fixing those problems until we elect Kevin McCarthy our next speaker.”
But the holdouts forced a third and final round of voting before Republican leaders quickly adjourned Tuesday evening.
“The American people are watching, and it’s a good thing,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who nominated fellow conservative Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio as an alternative for speaker.
Jordan, the McCarthy rival-turned-ally, was twice pushed forward by conservatives, but he does not seem to want the job. The Ohio Republican is line to become Judiciary Committee chairman, and he rose during the floor debate to urge his colleagues to instead vote for McCarthy.
“We have to rally around him, come together,” Jordan said.
In all, a core group of 19 Republicans — and then 20 — voted for someone other than McCarthy. The first ballot sent votes to Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Jordan and others, while Jordan alone won the votes on the next two ballots.
The standoff over McCarthy has been building since Republicans won the House majority in the midterm elections. While the Senate remains in Democratic hands, barely, House Republicans are eager to confront Biden after two years of the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress. The conservative Freedom Caucus led the opposition to McCarthy, believing he’s neither conservative enough nor tough enough to battle Democrats.
To win support, McCarthy has already agreed to many of the demands of the Freedom Caucus, who have been agitating for rules changes and other concessions that give rank-and=file more influence in the legislative process. He has been here before, having bowed out of the speakers race in 2015 when he failed to win over conservatives.
Late Tuesday, pizza, Chick-fil-A and tacos were carried into various meeting rooms at the Capitol after the failed votes as McCarthy supporters and detractors hunkered down to figure out how to elect a speaker.
“Everything’s on the table,” said McCarthy ally Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. — except, he said, having the leader step aside. “Not at all. That is not on the table.”
Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a leader of Trump’s effort to challenge the 2020 presidential election had said earlier it was up to McCarthy to meet their demands and change the dynamic.
Democrats enthusiastically nominated Jeffries, who is taking over as party leader, as their choice for speaker. He won the most votes overall, 212.
If McCarthy could win 213 votes, and then persuade the remaining naysayers to simply vote present, he would be able to lower the threshold required under the rules to have the majority.
It’s a strategy former House speakers, including outgoing Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Speaker John Boehner had used when they confronted opposition, winning the gavel with fewer than 218 votes.
Said McCarthy late Tuesday at the Capitol: “You get 213 votes, and the others don’t say another name, that’s how you can win.”