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The House Speaker Soap Opera Grinds On
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The House Speaker Soap Opera Grinds On

Three votes in, GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy doesn't have the votes—nor does anybody else.

Happy Wednesday! Congratulations to Sen. Mitch McConnell for becoming the longest-serving party leader in Senate history, Rep. Marcy Kaptur for becoming the longest-serving woman in congressional history, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy for trying his very best.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Food and Drug Administration updated its regulations on Tuesday to allow retail pharmacies to carry and dispense mifepristone, a medication used in conjunction with misoprostol to induce first-trimester abortions. Pregnant women will still be required to have a prescription to receive the abortion pill, but it was previously only available at specially certified clinics, hospitals, or mail-order pharmacies. 
  • The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel also published an opinion Tuesday freeing the U.S. Postal Service to deliver such pills even to states with strict abortion laws, writing that senders of the pills will typically not know enough about the recipient’s intent to violate the Comstock Act, which regulates what can be sent through the mail. “Because there are manifold ways in which recipients in every state may lawfully use such drugs, including to produce an abortion, the mere mailing of such drugs to a particular jurisdiction is an insufficient basis for concluding that the sender intends them to be used unlawfully,” the opinion holds.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed legislation into law last week granting the country’s National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council—whose members are appointed by the president and parliament—additional authority to shut down unregistered news outlets operating in Ukraine. Zelensky and his allies claim the law is necessary to combat Russian propaganda and meet European Union requirements for accession into the bloc, but a number of journalist groups have criticized the legislation, with one labeling it “the biggest threat to free speech in [Ukraine’s] independent history.”

Republicans Just Republican’t Pick a Speaker

Rep. Kevin McCarthy sits in the House Chamber during the third round of votes for House Speaker. (Photo by Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Images.)

Rep. Kevin McCarthy may have moved his belongings into the office of the Speaker of the House, but he’s still just a squatter there for now: Three House votes yesterday failed to hand him—or anyone else—the gavel. Since none of the members-elect can be sworn in until that happens, we’ve currently got an empty House. Enjoy it while it lasts. (Technically speaking, we ought to refer to every lawmaker in this newsletter as “Rep.-elect.” But that’d get old fast, so let’s agree to forgo the formality.)

McCarthy kicked yesterday off with some light shouting—“I earned this job!”—in an attempt to whip votes at a private GOP conference meeting before the House convened at noon. But Rep. Lauren Boebert’s shouted response—“This is bull—-”—more accurately summed up the next few hours, as the mood on the House floor went from cutesy to chaotic while McCarthy faked smiles and members’ kids who had tagged along to see history increasingly looked like they’d had their fill:

Led by Reps. Matt Gaetz, Chip Roy, and the other “Never Kevins,” 19 Republicans voted against McCarthy’s candidacy on the first ballot of the day, splitting their vote between Reps. Andy Biggs, Jim Jordan, and a handful of other lawmakers before coalescing around Jordan in the next two rounds—even though Jordan stumped for McCarthy and reportedly told Gaetz not to nominate him. Rep. Byron Donalds flipped from McCarthy to Jordan in the third round, bringing the total number of GOP defectors to 20. McCarthy could only afford four, as Democrats voted unanimously for their leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries.

While those Democrats munched buckets of popcorn, the “Never Kevin” faction trotted out statements of displeasure with McCarthy’s track record and promises. “This is not about personality differences or who has ‘earned’ the position,” Rep. Dan Bishop sniped before the first vote. “McCarthy is not the right candidate.” Rep. Scott Perry, chair of the House Freedom Caucus, agreed. “If [Leader] McCarthy had fought nearly as hard to defeat the failed, toxic policies of [the] Biden administration as he has for himself, he would be Speaker of the House right now,” he said. “I stand firmly committed to changing the status quo no matter how many ballots this takes.” Biggs, the initial “opposition candidate,” also repeated calls for McCarthy to drop out. “My colleagues have made clear that our party deserves a new leader,” he wrote about the first vote. “McCarthy should stand down.”

“Only Kevins”—and exasperated “Kevin is really the only viable option, guys” members—vented their own frustrations. Rep. Bill Huizenga shouted in the chamber he was voting McCarthy “because I’m interested in governing,and Rep. Nancy Mace questioned the motives of the 20 insurgents. “When [Never Kevins] were asked point blank what more they wanted, they could not answer the question,” she told The Dispatch’s Price St. Clair. Rep. Dan Crenshaw went further. “There’s a group of people who have deeply miscalculated,” he said. “They’ve calculated that people will see them as these noble freedom fighters fighting for a cause. They can’t seem to say what the cause is. That makes them look pretty f—ing stupid. And they are pretty f—ing stupid.”

“They are enemies now,” Crenshaw added. “They have made it clear that they prefer a Democrat agenda than a Republican.”

Both sides insist they’re not budging. “No matter how many times it takes, Kevin McCarthy,” Rep. Nicole Malliotakis said as she voted. Though Rep. Bob Good argued McCarthy should drop out of the running, Rep. Don Bacon promised he never will: “[McCarthy’s] steadfast. He’s in this until hell freezes.” Meanwhile, “Never Kevin” Rep. Ralph Norman said he’s willing to let the speaker fight drag on “six more months,” while Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene—a strong McCarthy backer—told our Audrey Fahlberg she considered the contest “a test of wills.” For now, Donalds is one of only a few members broadcasting a willingness to shift. “At the end of the day, somebody has to get the votes,” he said. “I’m open to whoever can close the deal.”

There is this one guy whose whole thing is being well versed in the art of the deal, and he’s been strongly in McCarthy’s camp for months. But when reached for comment on yesterday’s proceedings, former President Donald Trump was surprisingly noncommittal on continuing to support his Kevin. “We’ll see what happens,” he told NBC News’ Garrett Haake, claiming other lawmakers had been calling him all afternoon. “We’ll see how it all works out.”

McCarthy, for his part, later told reporters he had talked to Trump, and that the former president “reiterated his support.” After huddling with allies, the aspiring speaker also outlined a plan that would allow him to secure the gavel without 218 votes—a plan that involved some of his detractors voting “present” rather than for another candidate. Roy doesn’t see it working. “If he’s literally trying to patchwork votes together, to scrape together the votes by trying to carve out ‘present’ votes in hopes that people don’t show up or something, I just don’t see that as the right path to a strong leadership position,” he said.

In a gift to your neighborhood morning newsletter writers, members voted to adjourn shortly after 5 p.m. ET yesterday rather than proceed with a fourth—and likely fifth, sixth, seventh, etc.—vote that would carry them into the night. Doing so allowed members to attend all their scheduled festivities (or put their kids down for a nap), but it also provided Republicans an opportunity to regroup, cool off, and continue negotiations before the chamber reconvenes today at noon.

“Let’s see what happens overnight,” Rep. Jeff Van Drew told The Dispatch in an interview yesterday. “That brings a lot of freshness to the brain sometimes.” 

Still, it’ll take more than brain freshness for House Republicans to untangle the knot in which they find themselves. Maybe the saga reaches its conclusion today; maybe it plays out for two more months and beats the record set in the 1856 speaker race, which required 133 rounds of voting.

What comes next? McCarthy’s opponents, feeling they’ve made their point and extracted as many concessions as they’re going to get, could back down. McCarthy could realize he’s cooked, paving the way for rebels to put forth a yet-to-be-announced consensus candidate—neither McCarthy nor Jordan—who is well-liked enough within the conference to bridge its various factions. Democrats could start voting “present” to lower the number of votes McCarthy needs, or Republicans could start voting “present” to lower the number of votes Jeffries needs. Moderate Republicans and Democrats could put their differences aside to nominate someone who blurs traditional party lines—former Rep. Justin Amash offered himself up as tribute—or Cthulhu could awaken from his ancient slumber and bring an end to life on Earth as we know it.

And as we noted yesterday, whoever finally secures the gavel will still have the hardest task ahead: Running a cantankerous conference happy to derail government funding and debt limit negotiations. The prospect makes even Democrats nervous. “If the first message out of this new year is that the House can’t even organize itself, that would be bad,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons told the Huffington Post. “But frankly, the most important disagreement we may have this year is of the debt ceiling.”

And McCarthy supporters argue the current floor fracas won’t help Republicans achieve their priorities. “Anywhere in life, to get something done—be it in the military, in business, in sports, or in politics—you need a strong leader,” Wisconsin GOP Rep. Glenn Grothman told The Dispatch after the first round of voting. “Some conservatives have convinced themselves that we will get more done around here if Kevin is a weak speaker. That is preposterous on its face. But that is really what the argument is about.”

Some Bittersweet News

As you might’ve seen yesterday, The Dispatch will soon be saying goodbye to a key member of our team: David French has accepted a position as a columnist for the New York Times, starting at the end of the month.

David joined us in The Dispatch’s earliest days, and, in the three years since, has played an integral part in building this place into what it is today. He’s a terrific writer, as you know well, and his analysis of our current cultural, political, religious, and legal moment is unmatched. But more importantly, David has been a wonderful colleague and friend, helping us establish a culture of kindness and decency as we’ve grown the company.

This is a bittersweet moment, for both him and us, but we’re thrilled he’ll have an opportunity to reach new audiences and bring his thoughtful brand of conservatism and Christianity to an institution that—by its own admission—doesn’t quite “get” religion. Subscribers to the Times will be better informed—and better citizens—for having David added to their news diet. And if he wants to tell everyone there that “The Dispatch is the best conservative media outlet in the United States”—as he wrote in his latest newsletter—who are we to stop him?

His Sunday and Tuesday French Presses will be missed when he departs in a few weeks, but the Advisory Opinions podcast isn’t going anywhere: he and Sarah will continue churning out the legal analysis you’ve come to know and love. Plus, we’ve been reliably told he may continue dropping by Dispatch Live, The Remnant, and The Dispatch Podcast from time to time. His seventh-place team in our fantasy football league will live on forever, as will his second-place finish in the company-wide pickleball tournament earlier this year.

As Princess Mera says in David’s favorite movie Aquaman, “Sometimes, you have to do what’s right, even if your heart aches against it.” Our hearts are certainly aching a little bit this morning, but we also know this is the right move for David, at the right time.

Worth Your Time

  • Damar Hamlin—the 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety who collapsed during Monday night’s game after suffering cardiac arrest—remains in critical condition in the University of Cincinnati Medical Center’s intensive care unit. While we pray for his swift recovery, take a few minutes to read this 2021 Tyler Dunne piece on the former sixth-round pick from Pittsburgh—and his quest to better the community in which he grew up. “That’s what drives him today more than anything—the opportunity to inspire anyone he can in McKees Rocks and beyond,” Dunne writes. “He knows there are kids buried in poverty back in his neighborhood that need to meet someone like him. He’s been in their shoes. He’s walked their streets. ‘I try to be a big voice for them,’ Hamlin says, ‘because I know what they’ve been going through. I know how hard it is. So I’m trying to push them, keep it positive and let them see me. Let them see it’s possible.” Hamlin, Dunne continues, “aims to one day start a program for kids with incarcerated parents that’ll insert a mentor right into their lives. Even with a Dad in prison, Hamlin was able to stay in his own ‘bubble.’ Hamlin credits his Mom for making sure he didn’t stray.” In the past 48 hours, a GoFundMe Hamlin originally set up for a community toy drive has raised nearly $6 million dollars. Its initial goal? $2,500.
  • In addition to speaking with Steve on yesterday’s Dispatch Podcast, outgoing Sen. Ben Sasse wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal on what he sees as the fundamental schism plaguing our country today. “The most important divide in American politics isn’t red versus blue. It’s civic pluralists versus political zealots,” he argues. “Civic pluralists understand that ideas move the world more than power does, which is why pluralists value debate and persuasion. We believe America is great because it is good, and America is good because the country is committed to human dignity, even for those with whom we disagree. A continental nation of 330 million souls couldn’t possibly agree on everything, but we can hash out our disagreements in the communities where we live and the institutions we build. The small but important role of government, for the civic pluralist, is a framework for ordered liberty. Government doesn’t give us rights, or meaning, or purpose or permission. It exists to protect us from the whims of mobs and majorities. Political zealots reject this, holding that society starts and ends with power.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Would Dispatch staffers vote Kevin McCarthy for speaker? What’s Chip Roy up to? What does David’s departure from The Dispatch mean for the flagship legal podcast? Sarah, Jonah, Harvest, and Audrey discussed all this and more on last night’s edition of Dispatch Live (🔒). Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.
  • Speaking of that flagship legal podcast! On today’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah discuss David’s bittersweet announcement before turning to the legal battle over Title 42, transgender bathrooms in Florida, and how comedian Jeff Ross got wrapped up in a death penalty case.
  • Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle joins Jonah on The Remnant today for a preview of what the new year could bring. Will Congress get its act together? Can cryptocurrency rebound from the FTX scandal? Is the GOP inching back toward sanity?
  • For even more on Kevin McCarthy’s increasingly quixotic speakership fight—and its ramifications—be sure to read yesterday’s Uphill. “Members won’t be sworn in—and can’t move on to legislation—until they elect a speaker,” Haley notes. “So rank-and-file Republicans will face lots of pressure to resolve the matter quickly and avert institutional disruptions such as pay freezes to committee staff.”
  • Is Donald Trump turning into one of those RINO squishes you hear so much about? “Whatever his motives, Trump has left space to his right for ambitious rivals to attack him for having lost some of his MAGA mojo,” Nick writes in Tuesday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒). “Having helped turn the party into an endless series of populist purity litmus tests over the last six years, Trump may find that even he can’t pass the test anymore.”
  • Audrey, Harvest, and Price spent yesterday at the Hill catching lawmakers’ thoughts on all the leadership drama; you can read their whole piece here. And Jonah notes in his syndicated column that the whole boondoggle can only weaken the hand of the eventual speaker—which could be a good thing for bottom-up lawmaking.

Let Us Know

What’s your favorite David French Dispatch memory of the last three years?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.