House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy was humiliated by colleagues from his own party on Tuesday, as for the first time in one hundred years, Congress’ lower chamber failed to elect a House Speaker on its first ballot.
McCarthy came up short three times, a sign that Republican have brought chaos rather than control to the House.
The defection of twenty far-right Republicans not only blocked McCarthy from the Speaker’s chair but prevented the House from organizing.
The chamber adjourned until midday on Wednesday, amidst swirling rumors and Republican recriminations. Ex-President Donald Trump appeared to withdraw support from McCarthy, who has repeatedly tried to obstruct efforts to hold Trump accountable for the January 6th, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The stalemate left Washington’s U.S. Senator Patty Murray temporarily second in line for the presidency, a position normally held by the House Speaker.
Murray was unanimously chosen as President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, where Democrats still hold sway. Murray is the first woman to hold a position hitherto the domain of tough old men.
“I am truly honored to have earned the confidence of my colleagues to serve in the role, and the significance of this moment is certainly not lost on me,” Murray said in accepting the post. She was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris with a standing bipartisan ovation.
Across the Capitol, there was acrimony.
McCarthy, with 202 votes, trailed new House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who gained unanimous support from his 212-member caucus. The Democrats appeared in high spirits, cheering their leader’s vote totals on the House floor.
The Biden administration moved to contrast its achievements and commitment to bipartisanship with the Republicans’ fratricide.
The 46th President will appear Wednesday in Covington, Kentucky, to celebrate the bipartisan infrastructure package. He will be accompanied by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine along with Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Andy Beshear. They will appear at the Brent Spence Bridge, which links the Buckeye and Bluegrass states.
“We do profound things for the country when we work together,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told the daily briefing. Watching the Republicans’ internal feud, she added: “We’re certainly not going to insert ourselves in what’s happening on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Representative Suzan DelBene, D‑Washington, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was not so reticent. “The 118th Congress has yet to begin and Americans are already seeing how disastrous GOP control of the House is going to be,” she said in a statement. “No matter who becomes Speaker of the House or how many votes it takes, the contrast is clear and in two short years voters will reject the MAGA chaos and confusion.”
The Speaker stalemate put off by a day the swearing in of Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp-Perez, D‑Washington, the auto repair shop co-owner elected to represent Southwest Washington in Congress, and of Andrea Salinas, D‑Oregon, the representative for the Beaver State’s new 6th Congressional District.
With deft understatement, however, MGP underscored dysfunction on the other side of the aisle. “We want people who fix things for a living,” she said, adding: “The candidate selection process is fundamentally broken.”
Opposition to McCarthy was splintered among far right Republicans on the first ballot. It coalesced later behind Representative Jim Jordan, R‑Ohio, the strident election denier who is a fixture on Rupert Murdoch’s FNC. Quite likely playing a double game, however, Jordan himself nominated McCarthy and voted for McCarthy. Jordan is in line to chair the House Judiciary Committee.
The extreme right cost the Republicans numerous House and Senate races last November. Gluesenkamp Perez was elected over Trump-endorsed election denier Joe Kent, after Kent upset Republican incumbent Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler in the August Top Two election. Representative Mary Peltola, D‑Alaska, beat former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin to win a House seat held for forty-nine years by Republican Representative Don Young.
Ex-Representative Herrera Beutler surfaced on CNN. “I hate it, I absolutely hate it,” she said of the Speaker stalemate. “There’s nothing good that comes of it… I think extremes right now on both sides of the aisle are wagging the dog.”
The battle over Speaker produced angry divisions even among ultra MAGA Republicans. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and onetime House Speaker Newt Gingrich backed McCarthy, with Gingrich going on Fox News to denounce caucus dissidents. Having made a deal to back McCarthy, Greene turned her back on buddy Representative Matt Gaetz and said: “They’re holding this country hostage and preventing us from doing our job for the people.”
In turn, the attention-hungry Gaetz, R‑Florida, took to the House floor and sneered at McCarthy’s lengthy pursuit of the Speakership, saying the California congressman has “sold shares of himself for more than a decade to get it.”
Trump had given his endorsement to the supine McCarthy, who made a penitential pilgrimage to Mar a Lago shortly after the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But Trump, when asked later in the day about McCarthy’s endangered bid, told a radio host: “We’ll see what happens.”
Both remaining Republicans in Washington’s delegation, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, voted for McCarthy. CMR is in line to chair the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, where she has pledged fealty to the fossil fuel industry, with more oil drilling and coal mining on federal lands.
What is going to happen?
McCarthy has kowtowed to the far right, promising multiple investigations of the Biden family and even of the January 6th committee that has been investigating the insurrection. He has delivered lengthy, hyperbole-laden House floor speeches denouncing Senate Republicans (including McConnell) for voting for the $1.7 trillion federal spending bill. He railed against the Inflation Reduction Act.
Not enough, say the dissidents. In words of Montana Representative Matt Rosendale, speaking to the Washington Post: “We need a leader who can stand up to a Senate and President Biden and unfortunately it isn’t Kevin McCarthy.” Rosendale argued that more rules are needed to empower the GOP rank-and-file.
But concessions have made McCarthy look weak, and only fueled the extreme right’s strategy: The more we demand, the more we get. “Time to make the change or get out of the way,” they said in a letter to McCarthy late on Monday.
McCarthy erupted in anger at a Republican caucus meeting on Tuesday morning, declaring: “I earned this job. We earned this majority, and (expletive) we are going to win it today.” He angrily rebuffed demands by Gaetz and Scott Perry, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, for plum committee assignments.
Where have the reasonable Republican gone?
It appeared Tuesday that they’ve decamped from Congress and onto cable TV programs. Those remaining in the House have lined up with McCarthy, saying they will stick with the embattled leader come hell or high water. “Kevin McCarthy is going to be Speaker: I don’t think there is any question about it, I think the question is how many rounds it takes,” said Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, R‑Pa.
Sent to the sidelines, Herrera Beutler urged McCarthy to show backbone.
“The reality, the majority of the Republican caucus is not going to give into these demands,” she told CNN. “When you put your foot down, you get better results than not.”
The mess on Day One of the new Congress is embellishing the tough-as-nails reputation of former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
With a 222-seat majority, Pelosi was able to push through landmark infrastructure legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, a landmark bill to revive America’s computer chip industry, a modest package of gun safety measures, plus federal recognition of LBGTQ+ marriages. The narrow Democratic advantage in the 117th Congress held together on all of the above votes.
With 222 Republican seats, Kevin McCarthy cannot even secure the Speaker’s job.