Kevin McCarthy faces open GOP revolt as House fails to elect speaker
"The House will come back into session Wednesday after McCarthy’s bid was thwarted on three ballots on the first day of the new Congress
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.
“We do not reward not being able to close deals. I don’t know where we got that, where we thought that was a cool thing,” Donalds said. “But in the real world, you got to close.”
Still, McCarthy remained steadfast, telling reporters late Tuesday night that he will become speaker.
“It’s going to happen. … Is it the day I wanted to have? No. There’s a lot of things we wanted to do,” he said. “You come back and continue doing what we’re doing right now — talking — and you solve the small problems.”
McCarthy also said he spoke to former president Donald Trump on Tuesday evening and still has his support.
“I think from his perspective, he wants to see Republicans united to accomplish the exact things we said we’d do,” McCarthy said.
The reasons for the holdouts’ opposition were varied, from claiming that McCarthy’s proposed House rules package, which would dictate how the chamber functions over the next two years, 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. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) said the adjournment was like “calling a time out” so that the caucus can have “a family meeting.” He said the message will be, “Hey, kids, let’s all get together on this and let’s stop fighting each other.”
McCarthy’s inability to clinch the necessary 218 votes to become speaker in one day — something that hadn’t happened since 1923 — 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.”
McCarthy said he was not surprised by the 20 defections, since he knew where the vote tally stood. But it is unclear what he will do now to win over those opponents.
Immediately after the House adjourned, McCarthy met with multiple allies but not with any lawmakers opposing him. Several of his allies have for months acted as liaisons with members of the Freedom Caucus and were expected to continue meeting with them through Tuesday evening.
Allies emerged from McCarthy’s office late Tuesday stressing that the problem the Freedom Caucus has is much larger than McCarthy and would require a full conference conversation about the damage their demands could do to the institution.
“He has 90 percent of the House Republican support. That is a slam-dunk nomination for any position,” Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) said about McCarthy.
McCarthy still has several maneuvers he could make to win over holdouts, including withholding committee assignments. But he will no longer negotiate on changing the “motion to vacate” rule to allow one House member to recall the speaker at any point. He had already broken his pledge to keep the current rule — which former speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had changed to allow a member of leadership to oust the speaker — when he proposed in his House rules package that five members could call for a vote to remove him from the top spot.
McCarthy remained vague about exactly where the negotiations stood and what demands remained. Nor did opponents show their cards about what more they wanted to see happen before voting for McCarthy.
“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.
Those voting against McCarthy said early Tuesday they had myriad reasons, primarily that they consider him an “establishment” figure who has contributed to the problems that have long plagued GOP leadership. McCarthy has been in House Republican leadership for a majority of his congressional career, 14 out of 16 years.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said he entered negotiations with McCarthy and other Republicans early on in an effort to influence House rules. The group’s sway only grew after the midterms, given the razor-thin margin McCarthy has to work with.
“Under pressure from members who said we won’t accept the status quo, we have been able to force rule changes to make things better,” Perry said.
Over the weekend, McCarthy unveiled a final rules package before holding another conference call with members to discuss it. Shortly thereafter, Perry and Roy led seven other Republicans in opposition, saying the package didn’t go far enough in restoring power taken by leaders over time from members.
In a last-minute meeting Monday evening, Perry said, objectors provided McCarthy a list of final demands that included desired committee assignments, subcommittee chairmanships and immediate votes on border security legislation, as well as a bill that would institute term limits on members.
McCarthy began and ended the day defiant, telling the Republican conference in a meeting Tuesday morning that he was done negotiating and had “earned” the speaker’s gavel, according to multiple people in the room.
Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said at a news conference that McCarthy told the lawmakers Tuesday morning that he would not entertain detractors’ “personal wish list” any longer. “Here we are being sworn at instead of being sworn in,” Boebert said.
Throughout the meeting, McCarthy allies suggested that detractors would not be seated on committees if they defected on the House floor. Roy asked McCarthy if that was true, and McCarthy wouldn’t deny it.
McCarthy finds himself stuck in the middle of the first decision Republicans must make to officially convene the 118th Congress. Without a speaker elected, the House cannot swear in all members to vote for the rules package. 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.
New members are facing the brunt of the delays since they cannot access basic office functions like email until they are sworn in.
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, Reps. 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. “I’m not f---ing joking!”
As each vote dragged a full hour and the detractors refused to budge, members began to grow exasperated in public view as well.
“Because I’m interested in governing: McCarthy,” Rep. Bill Huizenga (Mich.) said as he cast his vote on the third ballot.
McCarthy’s allies were hoping not to adjourn Tuesday, in hopes that continually voting would pressure the holdouts to cave or tire Democrats from returning to the floor, according to multiple people familiar with last-minute negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Abstentions can benefit McCarthy since they help lower the 218-vote threshold.
Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said he’s “not scared” of the balloting lasting days.
McCarthy refused to entertain the idea that Jordan, the detractors’ pick, would actually become speaker. He noted he’s a “very big fan” of Jordan’s but said he does not have enough support.
It’s a sentiment the “Only Kevin” crowd echoed after leaving the House floor. 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.”
In response to Bacon jokingly telling reporters that the defectors should be called the “Taliban 20,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted, “Well….as hurtful and false as that is….I too am prepared for an extended battle that I will ultimately win.”
At the beginning of the day, Rep. Steve Womack (Ark.) reflected on the vitriol that had 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.
Liz Goodwin and Dylan Wells contributed to this report."
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