“Well, it’s Groundhog Day – again,” said Congresswoman Kat Cammack of Florida, nominating Republican leader Kevin McCarthy for speaker of the House on the sixth ballot.
But as he had five times before, McCarthy suffered yet another humiliating defeat at the hands of 20 hard-right Republican holdouts determined to block his rise.
McCarthy vowed to forge ahead. But it was clear Republicans were growing weary of the once-in-a-century spectacle that has already tainted the opening days of their new House majority. Despite three rousing speeches endorsing his candidacy on Wednesday, his prospects seemed dimmer than ever.
Congresswoman Victoria Spartz, a Republican from Indiana, changed her vote to “present” after supporting McCarthy on the first three rounds of ballots. She implored her party to “stop wasting everyone’s time” with endless rounds of balloting that were not changing any minds.
“Let cooler, more rational heads prevail,” pleaded Congressman Warren Davidson, a Republican from Ohio and a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, in a speech urging support for McCarthy.
Moments later, Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, another member of the Freedom Caucus and a conservative rabble-rouser from Colorado, called on her “favorite president” – Donald Trump – to level with McCarthy. Trump, she said, should tell the Republican leader: “Sir, you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw.”
But McCarthy remained hopeful that a third day of balloting would yield a different result. Deadlocked, Republicans voted to adjourn and return on Thursday for another round.
The brinkmanship underscored just how difficult it will be for any Republican to govern the chamber, where divisions have been building for years. Rebellious hardliners thwarted McCarthy’s hopes of becoming speaker once before, in 2015, when he bowed out of the race. And they chased out two of the would-be speaker’s Republican predecessors, John Boehner and Paul Ryan.
But after years of coddling his party’s furthest-right flank, and wholeheartedly embracing Trump, McCarthy had hoped he had at last earned their support. Some did rally to his side, the conservative firebrand Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia among them. But too many did not.
His opponents don’t trust him – they doubt his ideological leanings and his political strength. To win their support, McCarthy has already conceded to several of their demands for rule changes that would weaken the speaker’s influence and give rank-and-file members more leverage over the legislative process.
Yet after going head-to-head for six rounds, it is unclear what McCarthy has left to offer them except his withdrawal.
During a roll call on Wednesday, McCarthy, usually quick with a smile, grimaced. A fifth defection had sealed his fate before the clerk reached the last names beginning with D. At one point, his head fell into his hands. His allies worked the room, holding animated conversations with detractors. But the “Never Kevin” crew refused to budge.
“These fucking people,” Congressman Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas, lamented to a reporter earlier in the day. “Now they’re just being clowns.”
Until a speaker is elected, the House remains completely paralyzed: members cannot be sworn in, committees cannot be formed, bills cannot be passed. Many congressmen and congressmen-elect brought their family members to Washington for the swearing-in ceremony.
But instead of posing for a photo with the new speaker, hand pressed to a Bible, wide-eyed spouses and well-dressed children can be spotted instead passing the time in the basement cafeteria, waiting for something to happen. One Democratic lawmaker shared a photo of himself changing his son’s diaper on the floor of the Democratic cloakroom.
“We’re representatives-elect waiting to take an oath,” Congressman Pete Aguilar, the third-ranking House Democrat, said on Wednesday. “This is a crisis of the Congress and it’s a crisis at the hands of the Republican’s dysfunction.”
McCarthy remained optimistic that he could find his way to 218 votes – or execute a strategy that would allow him to claim the gavel with fewer votes than traditionally needed.
The California Republican moved his belongings into the ornate speaker’s office over the weekend, even as it was clear he had not yet secured the votes to stave off a floor fight. Congressman Matt Gaetz, a McCarthy foe, accused the would-be speaker of illegally occupying the suite, which still has no nameplate above the door.
Speaking later in the day, Cammack accused Democrats of enjoying the chaos, saying it was evident by “the popcorn and blankets and alcohol that is coming over there”. Democrats in the chamber responded angrily to the accusation that they were drinking during the speakership election, shouting, “Take her words down!” and asking the clerk to correct the record.
“If only!” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, shot back on Twitter. “If Dems took a shot every time McCarthy lost a Republican, we’d all be unconscious by now.”
In an unexpected moment of unity, the chamber stood and applauded when Congressman Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, noted that for the first time in congressional history two Black Americans – Congressman Byron Donalds, a Republican from Florida, and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic leader – were nominated for the high office.
Jeffries, who on Tuesday became the first Black lawmaker to lead either major party, won the most rounds on each of the six ballots, with all Democrats backing his candidacy. But he fell short of the 218 votes needed to claim the gavel.
Nevertheless when the House clerk read the vote total for the final time on Wednesday – Jeffries, 212; McCarthy, 201; Donalds, 20; and one “present” – Democrats burst into chants of “Hakeem”.
For the sixth time in two days, the clerk declared: “A speaker has not been elected.”