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Kevin McCarthy in Leadership Limbo
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Kevin McCarthy in Leadership Limbo

After three rounds of votes, House Republicans ended Tuesday in a stalemate over who should be the next speaker.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy waits as the House of Representatives holds the election for speaker Tuesday. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The fate of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy—and the speakership itself—remained unclear Tuesday night after he failed to clinch the speaker’s gavel following three consecutive votes on the House floor. 

Twenty hardline Republicans—many of them members of the Freedom Caucus—rejected McCarthy’s bid for speaker and instead unified behind GOP Rep. Jim Jordan, who is backing McCarthy and even made a floor speech to try to sway detractors after the first vote. The votes Tuesday marked the first time in a century that a speaker vote has gone to multiple ballots. 

The stunning degree of resistance from the House GOP’s rightmost flank left McCarthy with just 202 votes in the third round—16 short of the 218 he’d need to secure the speaker’s gavel. For the first two rounds of votes, McCarthy’s opponents held steady at 19 before increasing to 20 in the third round.

With House Democrats united behind newly elected party leader Hakeem Jeffries and no single candidate securing a majority of votes, the speakership remained in limbo as members left the chamber Tuesday night. The House eventually adjourned until noon Wednesday without adopting a rules package or swearing in any members.

The chaos is a troubling sign for House Republicans, who are set to hold a slim 222-212 majority after the recent death of Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin. Tuesday’s floor antics were also a humiliating blow to McCarthy, a California Republican and 14-year veteran of House GOP leadership who has spent months trying to woo would-be defectors.

McCarthy’s wheeling and dealing ahead of Tuesday’s votes included granting a number of concessions to the Freedom Caucus in his proposed rules package for the next Congress, including a five-member threshold to bring a vote of no confidence on the speaker and creating a select judiciary subcommittee focused on investigations of the executive branch. 

Leading up to Tuesday, McCarthy was holding out hope that his negotiating would pay off. “We may be on the verge of a New Year’s miracle,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of five longtime McCarthy holdouts, said on Monday. But by the end of a tense closed-door GOP conference Tuesday morning in which McCarthy reportedly insisted he’d “earned” the job, it became clear that he didn’t have the votes to win on the first ballot. Or, as it turned out, the second and third.

Soon intraparty rivals were at each other’s throats, including far-right GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whom McCarthy had promised a coveted seat on the House Oversight Committee. 

“I’m more than concerned. I’m angry,” Greene said after the second ballot in reference to the anti-McCarthy faction. “I’m upset over this. I don’t like it.”

Some of McCarthy’s more moderate supporters kicked off Tuesday’s vote series baffled by McCarthy’s willingness to cave to the Freedom Caucus’ demands, with one centrist Republican on Monday privately equating McCarthy’s willingness to cave to their demands as “negotiating with terrorists.” 

Yet supporters like Wisconsin Rep. Glenn Grothman remained steadfast. “I wish Kevin hadn’t given as much as he had, but he still has the opportunity to become a strong leader if he does a good job of articulating a conservative position,” he said in an interview after the first vote. 

During the second round of voting, GOP Rep. Nancy Mace cast her vote by proclaiming, “Only Kevin,” and fellow centrist Rep. Nicole Malliotakis announced she would vote for McCarthy “no matter how many times it takes.”

While McCarthy reportedly wanted to keep voting into the evening, the House opted by voice vote to adjourn for the day.

During interviews outside the House chamber, McCarthy’s camp appeared bullish about his chances and generally declined to speculate about potential alternatives. “There’s still nobody closer than Kevin,” Rep. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican, said after the chamber adjourned.

“At some point, we’re gonna get through this, Kevin McCarthy is going to be the speaker, and then I think we’ll be able to get to work,” moderate GOP Rep. Dusty Johnson said.

Meanwhile, the no-vote crowd seemed to grow even more confident in their numbers. “I think it’s going to be increasingly clear that he’s not going to be speaker. We will never cave,” GOP Rep. Bob Good of Virginia told Politico. Even former President Donald Trump, who previously endorsed McCarthy’s speakership bid, seemed uncertain about his path to the gavel Wednesday evening. “We’ll see what happens,” he reportedly told NBC News. “We’ll see how it all works out.”

GOP Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, the only Republican to flip his vote from McCarthy to Jordan during the three votes, called for another GOP conference meeting so the party can hash out its differences. “It’s clear right now Kevin doesn’t have the votes,” Donalds told reporters after the House adjourned. 

If neither side blinks, McCarthy’s chances of securing the gavel grow fainter, strengthening the case for a consensus candidate. But so far, his supporters were loath to name alternatives. Bowing out now would be a bitter pill for McCarthy to swallow. He last sought the position in 2015 after then-House Speaker John Boehner stepped aside but dropped out after a gaffe in which he seemed to suggest that the House Select Committee on Benghazi was politically motivated.

Even if a speaker is selected within the week, the prolonged standoff casts doubt on House Republicans’ ability to effectively govern. Any five Republicans will be able to wreak havoc, especially on high-profile fights like the debt ceiling debate coming up this year. “I just don’t see how any Republican speaker can survive bringing that vote to the floor without getting eaten alive by the chaos faction,” said Lee Drutman, a political scientist at the left-leaning New America think tank.

Still, McCarthy and his allies indicated he’d plow ahead.

“Let’s see what happens overnight. That brings a lot of freshness to the brain sometimes,” GOP Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a McCarthy ally, said in an interview at the end of the day. “I don’t think he’s gonna bow out real easy. I think he’s in here for the long haul.”

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.

Price St. Clair is a former reporter for The Dispatch.