House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy arrives to the US Capitol ahead of another vote for Speaker of the House on Wednesday.
American politics is once again in the throes of chaos after failing to elect anyone to the post of Speaker of the House of Representatives, one of the biggest political jobs in the country.
Republicans narrowly took the House at November’s disappointing mid-term elections, which was notably for the Grand Old Party’s failure to make serious gains against a sitting president with grim approval ratings allied to stubbornly-high inflation hitting voters in the pocket.
The GOP chose Kevin McCarthy of California for the job of Speaker, which would have made him one of the biggest powerbrokers in Washington DC. But on Tuesday, he failed to win the required majority during three separate votes thanks to a revolt led by far-right Republicans. It was the first time in a century a Speaker hasn’t been selected on the first ballot. He failed again – three times – on Wednesday, and there was little sign victory was imminent as the seventh and eighth defeats came on Thursday.
Here’s why the disarray over “taking the gavel” matters, and how it could be resolved.
What is happening?
After securing a slim majority in the midterms elections, the Republicans are now in control of the House – which, along with the Democrat-held Senate, makes up one half of Congress, where all legislative power in the federal government is vested.
The first task of the new session is to elect a Speaker and replace outgoing outgoing Democratic, Nancy Pelosi. By doing so the House anoints the second in line to the presidency, underlining the significance of the role.
In the weeks after an election, the Republican conference and the Democratic caucus hold an informal vote among their members to decide who they want to nominate to lead their party in January.
McCarthy, the party’s House leader when it was in opposition, won the majority of the Republican vote in a closed-door November meeting. Weeks later, Democrats unanimously chose Hakeem Jeffries to become their leader as the party transitions into the minority.
It typically takes a majority of the House to become Speaker – or 218 votes. But members are not obligated to vote for the party’s chosen candidate, hence why the McCarthy ascent has not been the formality it could be.
Why does it matter?
Without a Speaker, nothing can happen, paralysing American politics. New and returning representatives cannot be sworn into office until the House’s presiding officer and administrative head is chosen. The naming of committee chairmen, floor proceedings and even a promised investigation into the Biden administration is on pause.
On Tuesday, families waited around as what is normally a festive day descended into chaos, with children seen squirming in parents’ arms.
Who is causing the problems?
During the first three three rounds of voting, McCarthy won no more than 203 votes – meaning he has lost as many as 20 Republicans from his slim 222-seat majority.
The rebellion stems from a new generation right-wing conservatives who reject his leadership. Many are aligned with former US president Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again agenda, and want to upend business as usual in Washington.
House Freedom Caucus members Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert depart after speaking to members of the press.
While House Republicans are anxious to confront sitting president Joe Biden after two years of the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus believes McCarthy is neither conservative enough nor tough enough to take the battle to them.
McCarthy has been here before, having bowed out of the race in 2015 when he failed to win over conservatives in 2015 when then-Speaker John Boehner resigned after his own battle with the group.
Scott Perry, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a leader of Trump’s effort to challenge the 2020 presidential election, has said it is up to McCarthy to meet their demands and change the dynamic.
Why does Trump matter?
Despite many of the rebels being among Trump’s strongest supporters, the former president has renewed his public calls for Republicans to vote for McCarthy.
“CLOSE THE DEAL, TAKE THE VICTORY,” he wrote on his social media site. He added: “REPUBLICANS, DO NOT TURN A GREAT TRIUMPH INTO A GIANT & EMBARRASSING DEFEAT.”
“Kevin McCarthy will do a good job, and maybe even a GREAT JOB,” Trump added.
McCarthy has allied himself to Trump, quickly embracing him after initial criticism over the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. But a Trump endorsement might not be what it used to be.
During the mid-terms, the ex-president gave his full-throated endorsement to nearly 40 candidates. Many under-performed – as evidenced by the “split-ticket” voting that saw more moderate Republicans in the same states do markedly better than Trump acolytes.
What have Democrats said?
President Biden said House Republicans’ inability to unify behind a Speaker candidate is “not a good look” for the country. Biden said of Republicans: “I hope they get their act together.”
Some Republicans said continued obstruction could lead them to work with Democrats to elect a moderate Republican as Speaker.
Jeffries, the House minority leader who has all 212 Democrats four-square behind him, told reporters that Republicans had not approached Democrats about that option. “We are looking for a willing partner to solve problems for the American people, not save the Republicans from their dysfunction,” Jeffries said.
McCarthy can try as many times as he wants to get over the line.
The longest and most grueling fight for the gavel started in late 1855 and dragged out for two months, with 133 ballots, during debates over slavery in the run-up to the Civil War.
If he could win 213 votes, and then persuade the remaining critics to simply vote “present”, he would be able to lower the threshold required under the rules to have the majority. It’s a strategy both Pelosi and Boehner deployed.
On Wednesday, the anti-McCarthy Republicans threw their support behind Byron Donalds, a Florida representative serving in his second term.
Before the fourth vote, McCarthy said that it doesn’t matter who his colleagues put up against him. “I still have the most votes,” he told reporters. “So we could go through every name in the conference.”