WASHINGTON, D.C. — House Republicans flailed through a second day of multiple balloting Wednesday, unable to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy as House speaker or to come up with a new strategy to end the political chaos that has tarnished the start of their new majority.
For a fifth time, Republicans tried to vote McCarthy into the top job as the House plunged deeper into disarray. That came moments after the fourth vote showed 20 conservative holdouts still refusing to support him, unchanged from the previous time around and leaving him far short of the 218 votes typically needed to win the gavel.
“Let cooler, more rational heads prevail,” said Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, a conservative aligned with the far-right Freedom Caucus who nevertheless nominated McCarthy.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, a firm Colorado conservative, nominated Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., the chosen protest candidate of the day- and called for former President Donald Trump, the conservatives’ hero, to tell McCarthy, “Sir, you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw.”
Earlier Wednesday, Trump had done the opposite, urging Republicans to vote for McCarthy. “Close the deal, take the victory, he wrote on his social media site, using all capital letters. “Do not turn a great triumph into a giant & embarrassing defeat.”
Yet the California Republican vowed to keep fighting despite losing in multiple rounds of voting that threw the new majority into tumult a day earlier. Animated private discussions broke out on the chamber floor between McCarthy supporters and detractors searching for an endgame.
The House gaveled in at noon, but no other work could be done – swearing in new members, forming committees, tackling legislation, investigating the Biden administration – until the speaker was elected.
“Sure, it looks messy,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a McCarthy ally who quickly re-nominated him for the job with a rousing speech designed to peel off detractors. 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 twice offered a challenge to McCarthy – nominating Donalds 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.
The disorganized start to the new Congress pointed to difficulties ahead with Republicans now in control of the House.
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.
Tensions flared among the new House majority as their campaign promises stalled out. 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.
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.
“Kevin McCarthy is not going to be a speaker,” declared Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., one of the holdouts.
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 Tuesday 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.”
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 members 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.
“Everything’s on the table,” said ally Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. – except, he said, having McCarthy step aside. “Not at all. That is not on the table.”
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.
One Republican, Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana, voted present on the fourth round vote, but it made little difference in the immediate outcome.
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