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Kevin McCarthy’s once-in-a-century House speakership failure

Republican Kevin McCarthy failed to become House speaker on the first ballot, something that hasn’t happened in a century.

Republican Kevin McCarthy speaks with members-elect in the House Chamber during the second day of elections for Speaker of the House on January 4.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives met to elect a new speaker and begin the 118th Congress. But after five hours and three separate ballots, they adjourned without a speaker being chosen and with members not yet officially sworn in. Despite winning the majority of votes, Republican Kevin McCarthy was unable to muster the absolute majority constitutionally necessary to be elected speaker. It was the first time in a century that Congress required more than one ballot to elect a speaker, and left McCarthy facing a seventh ballot on Wednesday with little prospect of making headway.

The California Republican faced a rebellion from the hard-right members of his conference who made a series of interlocking demands that mixed the political, the procedural, and the personal. While Democrats held united and voted for their leader, Hakeem Jeffries, Republican dissidents split their votes. Ten voted for Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), who ran as a stalking horse opponent against McCarthy in an internal ballot of the GOP conference in November. Nine scattered their votes for candidates like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL).

The rebels were members of the House Freedom Caucus, many of whom had been loyal supporters of Donald Trump and backers of an uncompromising brand of conservative politics. While some had roots in a Tea Party brand of conservatism like Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), many were MAGA bomb-throwers who have come to political prominence more recently, like Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO). However, not all of the three dozen or so members of the House Freedom Caucus members were opposed to McCarthy. Some, like Reps. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Jordan, have been vocal supporters.

On the second ballot, the rebels consolidated around Jordan, even though the Ohio Republican gave a speech nominating McCarthy. All 19 anti-McCarthy Republicans voted for Jordan while all Democrats remained united around Jeffries, and McCarthy’s supporters stood by the California Republican. The margins remained almost unchanged on the third ballot, with Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) voting for Jordan after supporting McCarthy on the first two ballots. This set the stage for a political impasse that is unprecedented in modern history.

What do McCarthy’s opponents want?

The short answer is less power for McCarthy and more power for the right wing of the House Republican Conference. Part of their demands include efforts to weaken the office of speaker generally and enable rank-and-file members of the House — and, in particular, rank-and-file members of the House GOP — to have more influence over legislation. In recent years, speakers from both parties have centralized more and more authority in their own hands. This has meant members have less opportunity to introduce amendments, that most key legislation is negotiated by leadership in both parties, and it is presented for a vote in a handful of comprehensive bills such as the 2022 social spending bill Democrats dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act.

They also want to increase their leverage on McCarthy. One key point of contention has been a procedural question called the “motion to vacate,” which allows for an up or down vote on whether the position of speaker should be declared vacant and a new vote held. This was used by Republican rebels in 2015 to force out then-Speaker John Boehner. At the time, any individual member could force a vote on this question. Boehner was managing a fractious House GOP conference then, albeit with a far larger majority than Republicans have now.

Under House Democrats, the House rules were changed so that only party leaders could offer the motion. McCarthy’s critics want to return this precedent. With Republicans holding a nominal majority of five in the House, the motion to vacate threat functions as a sword hanging over any speaker. It means that a mere handful of Republicans would have the leverage to oust McCarthy from the speakership at any moment. Needless to say, McCarthy had been dead set against this. However, a recent offer he made to win critics was to lower the threshold to five for a motion to vacate. In other words, five members would have to jointly offer the motion to force a vote.

But more than this, they also want to shape the GOP agenda with hard-right members on influential committees and guaranteed votes on priorities like term limits, a balanced budget, and border security. From their perspective, past Republican Congresses have failed to hold Democrats accountable. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) told reporters before the vote, “Our position is that if Kevin McCarthy is the Speaker of the House, and we don’t have an ability to ensure that there is oomph behind the agenda and energy behind our oversight, [then not much else matters].” Gaetz went on, “I’m not here to participate in some puppet show where we pass a bunch of messaging bills, send them to the Senate, watch them die, fail to use leverage, and don’t hold the Biden administration accountable.”

What does everyone else think?

Most rank-and-file Republicans are not happy. Speaking to reporters before the vote on Tuesday, Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) said of McCarthy’s critics, “[I]t was all about controlling the committees and trying to fundamentally put people in positions where they can raise more money. This has nothing to do with bettering our country.” She described those willing to vote against the Republican leader as “the radical 2 percent.” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) expressed frustration that this could delay Republicans from getting started trying to pass their agenda as well. “You really have to go out of the gates fast in that first quarter to have an effect ... so there’s no time to waste right now.”

What happens now?

Voting resumed Wednesday at noon with McCarthy buoyed by a renewed endorsement from former President Donald Trump on his Truth Social website and Gaetz, a top McCarthy critic, embracing a derisive comparison of him and his allies to the Taliban. After all, as Gaetz noted on Twitter, the Taliban eventually won.

Speaking to reporters before Tuesday’s vote, McCarthy said, “I have the record for the longest speech ever on the floor. I don’t have a problem getting a record for the most votes” held in a speaker election. The record is 133 rounds of voting, which were cast over two months in 1856 to pick a new speaker. As of now, with this many votes for someone else that would need to swing his way, it looks as though McCarthy has a chance at exceeding that distinction, too.

Update, January 4: This story was originally published on January 3 and has been updated multiple times to reflect the latest developments.