For the first time in a century, the United States House of Representatives has failed to elect a speaker in the first rounds of voting, as Republican Kevin McCarthy fell short of securing a majority in the chamber to succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi.
McCarthy was not able to overcome opposition within his caucus in the three rounds of voting on Tuesday before the legislators voted to adjourn the House’s first meeting.
Republicans narrowly won control of the chamber in November’s midterm elections, but several right-wing legislators in McCarthy’s own party have refused to back him for the speakership.
The speaker must acquire a majority of the votes, excluding absent legislators and those who vote “present”. On Tuesday, McCarthy needed 218 votes, but he only received 203 as 19 Republicans voted against him in the first two ballots. In the third round, he lost one more vote, bringing his tally down to 202.
In the first vote, most Republican dissenters backed Arizona Representative Andy Biggs or Ohio Representative Jim Jordan. In the second round, all 19 opposing Republican votes went to Jordan, a right-wing firebrand. Jordan increased his total to 20 votes in the third round.
Before the voting began on Tuesday, far-right Congressman Paul Gosar had nominated Biggs as a candidate. But Jordan did not seek the speakership and voted for McCarthy three times himself.
In the second round, Jordan renominated McCarthy, and in turn, ultraconservative Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz nominated Jordan, acknowledging that the Ohio representative does not want the job.
The Democratic leader in the House, Hakeem Jeffries, received 212 votes in all three rounds — more than McCarthy — but he was never realistically in the running as his party is in the minority.
McCarthy, a California Republican, had served as House minority leader after Democrats took the majority in 2019.
Legislators will reconvene on Wednesday and hold subsequent votes until a candidate for the speakership wins a majority. The House will remain effectively non-functional without a new speaker.
The speaker is second in the line of succession for the US presidency and the country’s most powerful legislator, with decisive influence over what bills and amendments get to be considered.
The House is one of two chambers that makes up the US Congress. It, along with the Senate, passes federal legislation, allocates government spending and ensures oversight.
After the first round of voting, Biggs, an Arizona Republican, called on McCarthy to “stand down” and allow Republicans to choose another leader on the next ballot.
“We barely got through half the ballot before confirming that McCarthy is still well short of 218 votes,” he wrote on Twitter. “My colleagues have made clear that our party deserves a new leader.”
McCarthy had negotiated with the politicians who oppose his bid for speaker, offering concessions that were anticipated to dilute his power, should he become speaker.
He has promised to focus on the priorities of right-wing members, including investigating the business practices of President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, an issue that Democrats dismiss as a conspiracy theory.
McCarthy has also called on Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to resign over his handling of migration at the southern border, threatening to investigate and impeach him.
Moreover, he promised to restore the committee assignments of Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was kicked off congressional panels in 2021 over anti-Jewish and Islamophobic comments.
But despite those promises, McCarthy still failed to quell opposition from the far right.
Earlier on Tuesday, McCarthy signalled a willingness to withstand several rounds of voting. “I will always fight to put the American people first, not a few individuals that want something for themselves,” he told reporters. “So we may have a battle on the [House] floor, but the battle is for the [Republican] conference and the country, and that’s fine with me.”
His opponents also said they are in it for the long run. “I stand firmly committed to changing the status quo no matter how many ballots this takes,” Scott Perry, one of the leading Republican dissenters, wrote on Twitter.
The problem is…this isn’t just today. This is going to be everyday in the House Republican majority.
It’s not just that they won’t be able to govern. It’s that they are going to be an embarrassing public train wreck while they refuse to govern.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) January 3, 2023
Meanwhile, Democrats have described Republicans’ inability to agree on a speaker as a demonstration of the GOP’s failure to lead.
“None of this is good for our country. None of it,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy wrote in a social media post.
Key House Democrat Jamie Raskin called the inconclusive votes a “once-in-a-century humiliation” for McCarthy, accusing him of whitewashing “right-wing insurrectionism” that Raskin said took place during the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
Democrats could help McCarthy by voting for him or leaving the chamber for the next rounds of voting to lower the total of the votes, making it easier for him to attain a majority. But Congressman Eric Swalwell has ruled out the idea.
Let me put this to rest for the media reporting this: there is no House Democrat who is going to help Kevin McCarthy today.
— Rep. Eric Swalwell (@RepSwalwell) January 3, 2023