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Here’s how the Kevin McCarthy speaker debacle could actually end

Four ways Kevin McCarthy’s historically bungled bid for House speaker could be resolved.

House Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) talks to reporters as he leaves the House Chamber during the second day of elections for speaker of the House at the US Capitol Building on January 4.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Ben Jacobs is a political reporter at Vox, based in Washington, DC. Ben has covered three presidential campaigns, as well as Capitol Hill, the White House, and the Supreme Court. His writing has appeared in publications including New York magazine, the Atlantic, and the Washington Examiner.

After three days and 11 ballots, there is no speaker of the House and no prospect of one emerging anytime soon. On Thursday the House held five separate votes to select the next speaker and got the same result every time, and each time Republican Kevin McCarthy came up short.

All 212 Democrats supported Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), while 20 dissident Republicans cycled through an array of candidates including Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL), Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK), and Donald Trump. Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-IN) simply voted present. McCarthy remained stuck at 200 or 201 votes depending on attendance. The House is scheduled to meet again at noon Eastern time on Friday after members adjourned for ongoing negotiations in hopes of finding a resolution. These are the four possible scenarios.

1) McCarthy makes a deal

While some of the rebels — largely from the House Freedom Caucus — are considered to be “Never Kevin,” others are amenable to supporting McCarthy if sufficient concessions are made. Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) told reporters that he needed the California Republican to display sufficient fiscal conservatism. “Is he willing to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling? That’s a non-negotiable item.” (Norman seems to have conflated raising the debt ceiling, which involves the Treasury’s ability to issue new debt and would otherwise result in credit default by the United States, with the actual funding of the government.)

A lot of the key issues focus on whether the rebels feel that McCarthy will be sufficiently constrained to block the type of bipartisan spending bills that are anathema on the right. These include placing conservatives on the powerful House Rules Committee, which sets the terms of how bills can be debated in chamber and changing House procedure to allow just a single member to offer a motion to declare the office of speaker vacant and hold a new election. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) suggested to reporters that McCarthy’s opponents had “gotten themselves out on a ledge, and they need to figure out how to come back.” She thought that as they “start to realize that they’d never had a plan in the first place,” they might finally come to terms with McCarthy.

2) Stalemate

This could also end up being a stalemate of a size and scope that has a lot in common with the Western Front in World War I. There is much drama and great sound and fury with no real forward movement in either direction. After 11 votes, McCarthy is still not speaker but his tally has only dropped despite national attention and a press gallery overflowing with reporters, plus the intervention of former President Donald Trump on McCarthy’s behalf.

There is no reason this cannot continue indefinitely. Just as McCarthy’s opponents are steadfastly against him, a number of his backers have sworn to support the California Republican until the very end. Mike Lawler of New York, a newly elected Republican from a Democratic district in New York, told Vox that he was prepared to back McCarthy “to the last vote.” There is no reason for McCarthy not to fight on ballot after ballot in hopes of grinding his opponents down. After all, having dropped out of the race to succeed John Boehner as speaker in 2015, this is likely McCarthy’s last shot at wielding the gavel.

However, he hasn’t gained a single vote over the past three days, and there’s little reason to think that he can make sufficient concessions to appease the necessary number of dissidents.

3) McCarthy gives up

McCarthy could also just give up. He could concede at this point that he has no path to becoming speaker and drop out of the race in the hope that Republicans can rally around an alternative candidate.

The most likely candidate at that point would be Steve Scalise, McCarthy’s No. 2. The Louisiana Republican has long been mooted as the most likely Republican alternative to McCarthy. However, Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) cautioned reporters Tuesday that Scalise may also face some of the same criticism as McCarthy as a longtime member of Republican leadership. “I think a lot of people perceive Steve very similar to Kevin, but he may be that alternative that could bridge the gap.”

Other possibilities who might appease McCarthy critics include Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN). However, they might alienate some moderates who have been staunch McCarthy allies. Further, McCarthy dropping out would call into question a lot of the concessions that he had already made to conservatives about rules changes and lead to a renewed battle over the power of the next speaker versus that of the rank and file.

4) Unity candidate

The possibility of “a unity candidate” has been floated: that somehow Democrats and at least some Republicans could unite to find a mutually acceptable candidate. However, such a scenario still seemed more suitable for The West Wing fan fiction than real life, even as former Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a former Republican now in the Libertarian party, has hung around the floor in case the implausible happened. While some moderate Republicans have scoffed at the idea of such a deal, it seems to have been put forth more as a mechanism to scare recalcitrant conservatives into supporting McCarthy than a serious proposal. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) told reporters late Wednesday afternoon, “I don’t think that there’s been any really serious talk going on about that.” In the meantime, it does serve as an excellent way to fill airtime on cable television.

Update, January 6, 11:10 am: This story was originally published on January 4 and has been updated with new details about Thursday’s voting and possible outcomes for the speaker of the House.