The House adjourned without a speaker on Tuesday for the first time in a century after Kevin McCarthy failed in a third straight vote for the gavel.
And in the final ballot, the GOP leader watched his support begin to chip away.
Staring down a threadbare majority, McCarthy has been unable to dislodge dug-in opposition from the right flank of his conference, who are now openly pushing for conservative hero Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to take the gavel.
GOP lawmakers now hope to resolve their leadership battle privately after several humiliating hours on the floor. McCarthy and his allies have already begun talks with some of the 20 defectors in a desperate attempt to break the detente before the House will resume at noon Wednesday.
“We’re going to go have some more conversations tonight, to see what’s next,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), one of McCarthy’s chief antagonists. He declined to say whether McCarthy’s 20 dissenters would be meeting on their own, but said the talks would include members “across the conference.”
But by the time lawmakers return at noon on Wednesday, it’s not clear if McCarthy would still be the one seeking votes — or another member entirely.
After 14 years in leadership, McCarthy has now tried and failed three times to fulfill his decade-long dream of becoming speaker. In another troubling sign for the GOP leader, he lost the vote of someone who had been supporting him: Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) flipped on the third ballot to support Jordan.
For most of Tuesday, McCarthy’s allies insisted they would keep voting until a path emerged for him to seize the gavel, an attempt to grind down his opponents. What resulted was a game of high-stakes chicken — just the second time since the Civil War that a party required multiple attempts to elect a speaker on the House floor.
But that sentiment began to shift by the third vote, with many GOP lawmakers seeing no path for McCarthy to win without a major shift in dynamics. And some feared that the California Republican could lose even more support beyond Donalds without some personal intervention.
“I think it’s going to be increasingly clear that he’s not going to be speaker. We will never cave,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) said after conservatives blocked McCarthy from winning the gavel, urging him to drop out.
In a bid to cut off McCarthy opponents at their knees, Jordan gave an impassioned speech nominating the Californian, but that did little to move the detractors. Unlike in the first round of voting — where McCarthy picked up undecided House Freedom Caucus members, including Reps. Ben Cline (Va.) and Clay Higgins (La.), and Rep.-elect Mike Collins (R-Ga.), who had previously pledged to vote against McCarthy — the GOP leader didn’t pick up any new support in the second round.
How long the speaker’s fight will last remains the House’s favorite parlor game. McCarthy acknowledged on Tuesday that it “could” last for days, while one of his opponents, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), said they could persist for “six more months.” In the meantime, the House GOP risks a chaotic floor fight, with no rules of the chamber yet in place. The chamber cannot even swear in its members without a speaker.
Those 20 opposition votes came despite fierce pressure from McCarthy and his wide band of allies that he has honed over the years — with some members even vowing to punish defectors from removing them from committees.
“No one in this body has worked harder for this Republican majority than Kevin McCarthy,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who leads the GOP conference, said in a booming floor speech delivered moments before lawmakers began to vote.
After brewing for years, the revolt against McCarthy materialized on the floor in front of all 434 members (with the seat of the late Democratic Rep. Don McEachin still vacant). On a day of plenty of pomp and circumstance, dozens of lawmakers brought squirming children, including at least one crying infant, as they sat through the full roll call vote.
The substantial bloc of opposition against McCarthy marks an increase from the day prior, when only five House Republicans had publicly declared they would vote against their party leader.
But storm clouds were brewing over McCarthy throughout Tuesday. Just before heading to the floor, House Republicans gathered for a tense — and at times, raucous — meeting where McCarthy and his top supporters erupted at the dozen-plus conservative hardliners vowing to block his speaker’s bid.
In a fiery speech to his conference in the closed-door meeting, McCarthy underscored the extensive concessions he has made to those who have vowed to oppose him, largely those in the House Freedom Caucus, according to multiple members in the room. He also told members that there are about 20 GOP lawmakers who plan to vote against him, far more than the five who have publicly opposed him — in a preview of the chaos that he met on the floor.
“I earned this job. We earned this majority, and Goddammit we are going to win it today,” McCarthy said to a standing ovation, according to lawmakers in the room.
It wasn’t just the California Republican calling out the conservative hardliners at the conference meeting. Many of McCarthy’s frustrated supporters, too, unloaded on the band of detractors. At one point, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, pushed the idea that any Republican who opposes McCarthy should be stripped of committee assignments.
Roy, one of McCarthy’s chief antagonists, spoke up to defend his position — and lashed out against Rogers’ remarks about keeping fellow Republicans off committees, shouting profanities at his colleague. Rogers said after the meeting that his warning that the Steering Committee will block McCarthy opponents from getting committee assignments wasn’t just a threat: “I promised it.”
And McCarthy shot back at Roy’s defense of his opposition: “You’re not voting against me, it’s against the conference and the country.”
Roy wasn’t the only Republican vowing to vote against McCarthy to speak up. Reps. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Norman both reiterated their stances to the conference. The GOP leader responded to Perry: “What’s left? What do you want?”
Other anti-McCarthy members, including Perry and Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), publicly railed against McCarthy after the closed-door meeting, arguing that his allies were resorting to political threats instead of making a deal. Boebert had just announced her public opposition Tuesday morning, along with Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.).
Even before the explosive meeting, early signs Tuesday didn’t point in McCarthy’s favor. Perry offered blistering criticism of McCarthy just before the meeting, saying conservatives had asked for several concessions like commitments on committee seats that, in turn, would get him to 218 votes, but that the California Republican declined.
McCarthy has worked fervently to lock down support, releasing a long list of concessions he’s prepared to make on rules changes, including making it easier to depose a speaker.
In a significant win for conservatives, McCarthy set the number of Republican backers needed to force a vote on deposing the speaker at five, to the dismay of some rank-and-file members. It’s an about-face from just weeks ago, when the conference set the threshold to prompt such a vote, known as the motion to vacate, at a majority of its members. And some conservatives argue that’s not good enough — they want one member to be able to force such a motion.
Some Republicans say McCarthy should make a deal to persuade some Democrats to leave the floor after several ballots. Others, like Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), have floated that if conservatives block McCarthy, they could work with a band of centrist Democrats to elect a more moderate Republican instead.
For now, Democrats have no plans to intervene to help McCarthy or another Republican as their party flails. But there have been quiet conversations about what they could extract from the GOP if the speaker’s race did come to a breaking point. Some are even discussing plans for a possible power-sharing agreement — a scenario that several Republicans described as outlandish.
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