Republican leader Kevin McCarthy repeatedly fell short in his campaign to become Speaker of the US House of Representatives on a day marked by intense political drama.
On Tuesday evening, the House adjourned without electing a speaker, the first time this had happened since the first round of elections in 1923.
The beginning of a new Congress was meant to be the Republican Party’s victory lap after winning control of the lower chamber in the elections held in November. Instead, Mr. McCarthy encountered an internal uprising and made history for all the wrong reasons.
The California congressman has so far lost three consecutive votes for speaker, and it’s uncertain how he might succeed when the House reconvenes on Wednesday. They will keep voting until a majority is reached.
Analysts caution that even if Mr. McCarthy finds a way, the unrest on the House floor portends a turbulent two years of conflict between moderate and right-wing Republicans.
Negotiations left him looking frail,
Republicans narrowly took control of the House in November, therefore Mr. McCarthy’s campaign to become Speaker was successful with a small margin of victory. That made it possible for a group of staunch conservatives to unite and reject his nomination.
The rift was a long time coming, according to Republican observers. “Kevin McCarthy has not made friends with certain segments of the caucus for a while, he’s made a lot of enemies,” said one Republican lobbyist, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about Tuesday’s vote. “There’s people who don’t like him for political reasons, for personal reasons.”
McCarthy engaged in conversations with those who oppose him because they believe he is too mainstream and power-hungry, making concessions in an effort to earn their support. He apparently agreed to amend the House rules at one time to make it simpler to remove a Speaker who is in office, giving his rivals a significant check on his authority.
The Republican lobbyist claimed that the fact that the man was even negotiating with the Republicans “made him look very, very weak to the point of being desperate.”
His adversaries are emboldened
On Tuesday, it became apparent that strategy was fruitless.
Mr. McCarthy failed to receive the necessary 218 votes in three consecutive votes. Republicans currently command 222 seats, but a group of 19 hard-right Republicans have united to oppose him. They disagree with Mr. McCarthy on intellectual and personal grounds, but they also see a chance to take advantage of the Republican Party’s slim majority to compel him to make further compromises.
Representative Rob Good, a Republican from Virginia, assured reporters on Tuesday that they will “never back down.”
Just moments after Representative Jim Jordan proposed Mr. McCarthy for Speaker, they even nominated Mr. Jordan’s challenger, Rep. Jim Jordan, in one of the day’s most dramatic moments.
In the third round of voting, even though Mr. Jordan, a prominent member of the hard-right Freedom Caucus, asked Republicans to “unite around” Mr. McCarthy, 20 Republicans still voted for Mr. Jordan, denying Mr. McCarthy the victory.
In the meantime, Democrats stuck together behind their party’s new leader, New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries.
A few couldn’t resist publicly making fun of their Republican counterparts’ trying afternoon. Democrats were “breaking the popcorn out,” claimed one congressman, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, in a tweet that included a picture of the snack as proof.
McCarthy’s Current Options
Theoretical speculation about how this could all turn out has started among political analysts in Washington. Their forecasts to the BBC ranged from the realistic (Mr. McCarthy fights through and prevails, but leaves the contest very depleted) to the completely improbable (he bows out and backs his second in command, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana). One suggestion was almost fantastical (five Republicans decide to vote for Mr Jeffries, a Democrat, and deliver him control of the House).
Right now, according to Ruth Bloch Rubin, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who specializes in polarization, Mr. McCarthy is “basically prisoner to one wing of his party.”
Although Mr. McCarthy has vowed to stop making concessions, he might not have a choice. He might offer lucrative committee assignments or new leadership positions in an effort to sway recalcitrant lawmakers.
“He’s got to give the people who are against him something to hang their hat on,” said Aaron Cutler, a lobbyist who once worked for former congressman Eric Cantor, another politician who was ousted by conservative opposition. The other Republican lobbyist, however, believed there was “no path to victory, at all, period.”
Members will reconvene for a fourth time on Wednesday, though it’s unclear if the stalemate will break.
“We haven’t heard anything new from McCarthy,” one of the conservative holdouts, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, told reporters. “So I guess we’ll just keep doing this.”