Kevin McCarthy faces open GOP revolt as House fails to elect speaker

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), left, speaks with GOP Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), second from right, and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) after the first ballot in the House speaker election Tuesday.

Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) faced open revolt in the House chamber Tuesday, failing in three rounds of balloting to earn enough votes to capture the speakership in a once-in-a-century showdown that will now spill into a second day.

The stunning failure of the House to elect a speaker on its first round of voting came after McCarthy and his allies spent weeks working to secure the 218 votes needed for him to take the gavel. Republicans won back the House in November’s midterms, but with a slim, four-vote majority, requiring near-consensus among the conference to move votes forward.

By early Tuesday, it became clear that hard-right GOP holdouts had not been swayed. The failure was the culmination of an internal divide that had in the past helped bring down the speakerships of Republicans John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), with members of the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus asking for a range of demands in exchange for their votes.

Nineteen Republicans remained dug in against McCarthy, voting for four other Republicans on the first ballot before switching their support to Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) during the second and third ballots. Rep. Byron Donalds (Fla.) joined the group on the third and final round of voting, bringing McCarthy’s opposition to 20. The reasons for their opposition are varied, from claiming that the rules package McCarthy proposed does not go far enough in giving members leverage to simply wishing McCarthy was someone else.

Unable to break the stalemate, the House adjourned without a speaker on Republicans’ first day back in the majority. McCarthy spent Tuesday evening huddling with allies to devise a plan that could break the opposition and help him be elected as speaker when the House convenes again Wednesday afternoon.

Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Tex.) said the adjournment was like “calling a time out” so that the caucus can have “a family meeting.” The message will be, “Hey, kids, let’s all get together on this and let’s stop fighting each other,” he said.

McCarthy’s inability to clinch the necessary 218 votes to become speaker in one day – something that hasn’t happened since 1923 – has led members into uncertain territory and undermined Republicans’ goal to govern now that they have the majority. As a result, the GOP’s intraparty fighting only grew more fervent and transparent as the day went on, with many no longer holding back insults toward the detractors.

“I think that we have to make a choice today: Are we going to be the party of the radical 2 percent? said Rep. Kat Cammack (Fla.), visibly frustrated after a morning conference meeting in which McCarthy made his case once more to his colleagues. “Because that’s what it comes down to, the 2 percent that are being the most vocal.”

It is unclear what McCarthy can do now to win over the 20 who voted against him. Immediately after the House adjourned, McCarthy met with several allies but not with any lawmakers currently opposing him. Several McCarthy allies have for months acted as liaisons with members of the House Freedom Caucus and were expected to continue meeting with them through Tuesday evening.

McCarthy still has several maneuvers to make to try to win over holdouts, after withholding committee assignments and possibly diminishing the power of the speakership. He has already put into the House rules that five lawmakers can recall the speaker at any time, after pledging that he would not accept changes to the current motion to vacate. But it was unclear if his opponents would accept any more concessions.

“I’m not going to talk about where we go on candidates, because that’s premature,” said Rep. Chip Roy (Tex.), who nominated Jordan on the House floor after voting for Donalds on the first ballot.

The unfolding drama is due to the dismal election results for House Republicans, who had expected to win scores of seats in the midterms. Voters instead handed them a four-vote majority, jeopardizing key decisions since any small group of Republicans could derail any negotiation.

After months of talks with members who made their opposition known after House Republicans’ disappointing midterms performance, McCarthy has made numerous concessions in an effort to win his detractors over. But the discord only grew over the holiday weekend, with some members who had been leaning against McCarthy now coming out as firm opponents.

McCarthy began and ended the day defiant, telling the Republican conference in a meeting Tuesday morning that he was done negotiating and had “earned” his right to be speaker, according to multiple people in the room.

McCarthy finds himself stuck in the middle of the first decision Republicans must make to convene the 118th Congress. Without a speaker elected, the House cannot swear in all members to vote for a rules package that will dictate how the House governs over the next two years. Any further delay will also affect committee work, hampering Republicans’ desire to jump-start investigations into the Biden administration and create a new select committee that would look into the “weaponization of government,” as McCarthy promised Sunday.

“Because I’m interested in governing: McCarthy,” Rep. Bill Huizenga (Mich.) said as he cast his vote on the third ballot.

The irritation among Republicans grew more visible as the day went on. During the second ballot, four lawmakers from Texas convened off the floor to discuss the stalemate. Rep.-elect Wesley Hunt, Rep. Dan Crenshaw and McCaul confronted Rep. Michael Cloud about why he continued to defect and support Jordan, who himself had repeatedly endorsed McCarthy.

Crenshaw asked Cloud what other concessions McCarthy could make to win over his opponents – and then demanded to know why Freedom Caucus members are considered more conservative than him.

“What about them is more conservative?” a frustrated Crenshaw asked Cloud.

McCarthy allies were not entertaining the idea that the detractors’ pick, Jordan, would actually become speaker. Rep. Don Bacon (Neb.) said that while Jordan is a “nice man” and “made a good team with Kevin McCarthy,” it’s not worth accommodating “a small group that essentially have you hostage, and that’s what’s going on here.”

At the beginning of the day, Rep. Steve Womack (Ark.) reflected on the tensions that have flared dramatically, and publicly, within the Republican conference. Asked how a staunch conservative and institutionalist like him felt, he became visibly emotional.

“I don’t know how to answer the question. Really. I just hurt for the institution. It’s painful,” he said.