Object previewFor a third day, divided Republicans left the speaker’s chair of the U.S. House sitting empty Thursday, January 5, 2023, as party leader Kevin McCarthy failed and failed again in an excruciating string of ballots to win enough GOP votes to seize the chamber’s gavel.
Pressure was building as McCarthy lost the seventh and eighth rounds of voting, and launched on a historic ninth ballot, tying the number it took the last time this happened, 100 years ago, in a fight to choose a speaker in a disputed election. But with his supporters and foes seemingly stalemated, feelings of both boredom and desperation seemed increasingly evident with no end in sight.
One McCarthy critic, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, even cast his votes for Donald Trump, a symbolic but pointed sign of the broader divisions over the Republican Party’s future.
It’s not happening,” said Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado who nominated a new alternative, Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, and urged colleagues to consider a future without McCarthy: “We need a leader who is not of the broken system.”
McCarthy could be seen talking, one on one, in whispered conversations in the House chamber, and met privately earlier with colleagues determined to persuade Republican holdouts to end the paralyzing debate that has blighted his new GOP majority.
“We’re having good discussions and I think everyone wants to find a solution,” McCarthy told reporters shortly before the House gaveled in its third session.
Despite endless talks, signs of concessions and a public spectacle unlike any other in recent political memory, the path ahead remained highly uncertain. What started as a political novelty, the first time since 1923 a nominee had not won the gavel on the first vote, has devolved into a bitter Republican Party feud and deepening potential crisis.
Democrat Hakeem Jeffries of New York was re-nominated by Democrats. He has won the most votes on every ballot but also remained short of a majority.
Republican Party holdouts repeatedly put forward the name of Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, assuring the stalemate that increasingly carried undercurrents of race and politics would continue.
Donalds, who is Black, is seen as an emerging party leader and GOP counterpoint to the Democratic leader, Jeffries, who is the first Black leader of a major political party in the U.S. Congress and on track himself to become speaker some day.
Another Black Republican, newly elected John James, nominated McCarthy on the seventh ballot. Republican Brian Mast of Florida, a veteran, appeared to wipe away a tear as he nominated McCarthy on the eighth, and insisted the California Republican was not like past GOP speakers who are derided by conservatives. For the ninth ballot, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, Troy Nehls of Texas, made the nomination.
“This battle we are waging must end,” Nehls told his colleagues.
Donalds was the holdouts’ choice, nominated this round by staunch McCarthy opponent Matt Rosendale of Montana.
McCarthy is under growing pressure from restless Republicans, and Democrats, to find the votes he needs or step aside, so the House can open fully and get on with the business of governing.
The incoming Republican chairmen of the House’s Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Intelligence committees all said national security was at risk.
“The Biden administration is going unchecked and there is no oversight of the White House,” Republicans Michael McCaul, Mike Rogers and Mike Turner wrote in a joint statement. “We cannot let personal politics place the safety and security of the United States at risk.”
But McCarthy’s right-flank detractors appeared intent on waiting him out, as long as it takes.
Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the leader of the Freedom Caucus, asserted that McCarthy cannot be trusted, and tweeted his displeasure that negotiations over rules changes and other concessions were being made public.
“A deal is NOT done,” Perry tweeted. “When confidences are betrayed and leaks are directed, it’s even more difficult to trust.”
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.
To win support, McCarthy has already agreed to many of the demands of Freedom Caucus members, who have been agitating for rules changes and other concessions that give rank-and-file members more influence.
Mostly, the holdouts led by the Freedom Caucus are seeking ways to shrink the power of the speaker’s office and give rank-and-file lawmakers more influence in the legislative process — with seats on key committees and the ability to draft and amend bills in a more free-for-all process.
One of their key asks is to reinstate a rule that would allow a single lawmaker to seek a motion to vacate the chair — essentially to all a House vote to oust the speaker. It’s the same rule a previous era of tea party Republicans used to threaten the removal of Boehner, and McCarthy has resisted reinstating it.
But those opposing McCarthy do not all have the same complaints, and he may never be able to win over some of them. A small core group of Republicans appear unwilling to ever vote for McCarthy.
“I’m ready to vote all night, all week, all month and never for that person,” said Florida Republican Gaetz.
The House, which is one-half of Congress, is essentially at a standstill as McCarthy has failed, one vote after another, to win the speaker’s gavel in a grueling spectacle for all the world to see. The ballots have produced almost the same outcome, 20 conservative holdouts still refusing to support him and leaving him far short of the 218 typically needed to win the gavel.
In fact, McCarthy saw his support slipping to 201, as one fellow Republican switched to vote simply present.
Thursday could be a long day. The new Republican majority was not expected to be in session on Friday, which is the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. A prolonged and divisive speaker’s fight would almost certainly underscore the fragility of American democracy after the attempted insurrection two years ago.
“We must open the House and proceed with the People’s work,” California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker, said in a tweet.
Some Republicans appear to be growing uneasy with the way House Republicans have taken charge after the midterm election only to see the chamber upended over the speaker’s race in their first days in the new majority.
Colorado Republican Ken Buck voted for McCarthy but said Wednesday that he told him “he needs to figure out how to make a deal to move forward” or eventually step aside for someone else.
The right-flank conservatives, led by the Freedom Caucus and aligned with former President Trump, appeared emboldened by the standoff — even though Trump publicly backed McCarthy.
The disorganized start to the new Congress pointed to difficulties ahead with Republicans now in control of the House, much the way that some past Republican speakers, including John Boehner, had trouble leading a rebellious right flank. The result: government shutdowns, standoffs and Boehner’s early retirement.
The longest fight for the gavel started in late 1855 and dragged on for two months, with 133 ballots, during debates over slavery in the run-up to the Civil War.