WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans will open the second day of the new Congress much like the first — with leader Kevin McCarthy trying to become House speaker despite losing in multiple rounds of voting that threw the new GOP majority into chaos.
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 by the gravity of the moment. 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.
The House is scheduled to convene Wednesday after the 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.
McCarthy said Trump wants him to stay in the race and told him to bring an end to the House Republican chaos and pull the party together.
The former president “wants to see the Republicans united to be able to accomplish the exact things we said we’d do,” McCarthy said.
Asked if he would drop out, McCarthy said, “It’s not going to happen.”
It was a tumultuous start to the new Congress and 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 appeared on track to win the House majority in the midterm elections in November. 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. — expect, 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 — a typically symbolic gesture for the minority but one that took on new importance with Republicans at odds with each other.
While Jeffries won the most votes overall, 212, it was not the majority to become speaker.
McCarthy focused on those numbers late Tuesday. 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.”