US House in chaos after Kevin McCarthy loses speaker votes

Representative Matt Gaetz is one the Republicans plotting against Mr McCarthy
Representative Matt Gaetz is one the Republicans plotting against Mr McCarthy

On a day of political drama not seen in Congress for a century, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy repeatedly failed in his bid to be elected Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

The House adjourned without a speaker on Tuesday night – the first time since 1923 they had failed to choose a leader after a first round vote.

The start of a new Congress was supposed to be a victory lap for the Republican Party as it took control of the lower chamber following November’s elections. Instead, Mr McCarthy faced a rebellion from within his own ranks and made history for all the wrong reasons.

The California congressman has lost three consecutive votes for Speaker so far, and it’s unclear what his path to victory could be when the House returns on Wednesday to try all over again. They will keep voting until someone wins a majority.

And even if Mr McCarthy finds a way, analysts warn, the turmoil on the floor of the House foreshadows a tumultuous two years of moderate and right-wing Republicans at war with each other.

Republicans narrowly won control of the House in November, so Mr McCarthy only had a few votes to spare in his bid to become Speaker. That allowed a group of hardline conservatives to band together to oppose 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.”

Mr McCarthy entered into negotiations with his detractors – who see him as too mainstream and power hungry – offering concessions to try to win their vote. At one point, he reportedly agreed to change the House rules to make it easier to oust a sitting Speaker, handing his opponents an enormous check on his power.

“The fact he was negotiating with the Republicans at all made him look very, very weak to the point of being desperate,” the Republican lobbyist said. The futility of that approach became clear on Tuesday.

In three consecutive votes, Mr McCarthy failed to reach the required 218 vote threshold. Though Republicans hold 222 seats, a bloc of 19 hard-right Republicans had solidified in opposition to him. They oppose Mr McCarthy on ideological and personal grounds, but also see an opportunity to exploit Republicans’ narrow majority to force further concessions from him.

They would “never back down” Representative Rob Good, a Virginia Republican, told reporters on Tuesday.

In one of the day’s most dramatic moments, they even nominated Representative Jim Jordan to challenge him, just moments after Mr Jordan himself nominated Mr McCarthy for Speaker.

Even after Mr Jordan – who is a leading figure in the hard-right Freedom Caucus – urged Republicans to “rally around” Mr McCarthy in the third round of voting, 20 Republicans voted for Mr Jordan, again denying victory to Mr McCarthy.

Meanwhile, Democrats remained unified behind their party’s new leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York. A few could not help publicly teasing their Republican counterparts about their party’s difficult afternoon. One congressman, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, tweeted that Democrats were “breaking the popcorn out,” and as evidence included a photo of the snack.

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