Kevin McCarthy’s House Speaker fails once in a century

The House of Representatives met on Tuesday to elect a new president and kick off the 118th Congress. But after five hours and three separate votes, they adjourned without a speaker chosen and with members not yet officially installed. Kevin McCarthy he was unable to garner the constitutionally necessary absolute majority to be elected president. It was the first time in a century that Congress required more than one ballot to elect a speaker.

The California Republican faced a rebellion from far-right members of his conference who made a series of interconnected demands that mixed the political, the procedural and the personal. While the Democrats held together and voted for their leader, Hakeem Jeffries, the dissident Republicans split the votes. Ten voted for Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), who he ran like an adversary on horseback in ambush against McCarthy in an internal GOP conference vote in November. Nine scattered their votes for candidates like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL).

The rebels were members of the House Freedom Caucus, many of whom had been staunch supporters of Donald Trump and supporters of a hardline brand of conservative politics. While some had roots in a Tea Party brand of conservatism like Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), many were MAGA bomb throwers who became politicians more recently, like Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO). However, not all of the three dozen or so members of the House Freedom Caucus were against McCarthy. Some, like Reps. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Jordan, were vocal supporters.

On the second ballot, rebels consolidated around Jordan, despite the Ohio Republican making a speech nominating McCarthy. All 19 anti-McCarthy Republicans voted for Jordan while all Democrats united around Jeffries, and McCarthy supporters backed the California Republican. Margins were nearly unchanged on the third ballot, with Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) voting for Jordan after backing McCarthy on the first two ballots. This set the stage for a political impasse unprecedented in modern history.

What do McCarthy’s opponents want?

The short answer is less power for McCarthy and more power for the right wing of the House Republican Conference. Part of their demands include efforts to weaken the speakership generally and allow House grassroots members — and, in particular, GOP House grassroots members — more influence over legislation. In recent years, speakers from both parties have concentrated more and more authority in their own hands. This has meant that members have fewer opportunities to introduce amendments, that most key legislation is negotiated by the leadership of both parties and is tabled for a vote in a handful of comprehensive bills such as the Social Spending Bill of 2022 that Democrats have dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act.

They also want to increase their influence over McCarthy. A key point of contention has been a procedural issue called a “motion to vacate,” which allows for an up or down vote on whether to declare the speaker’s position vacant and hold a new vote. This was used by insurgent Republicans in 2015 to coerce then-spokesman John Boehner. At the time, any single member could force a vote on this question. Boehner was running a fractious GOP conference in the House, albeit with a much larger majority than Republicans now have.

Under House Democrats, House rules were changed so that only party leaders could table the motion. McCarthy’s critics want to restore this precedent. With Republicans holding a nominal majority of five in the House, the motion to vacate the threat works like a sword hanging over any speaker. Meaning only a handful of Republicans would have the leverage to oust McCarthy as the speaker at any time. Needless to say, McCarthy was absolutely against this. However, a recent offer he made to win over critics was to lower the threshold to five for a motion to be struck down. In other words, five members would have to jointly table the motion to force the vote.

But more than that, they also want to shape the GOP agenda with far-right members on influential committees and guaranteed votes on priorities like term limits, a balanced budget and border security. In their view, past Republican congresses have failed to hold Democrats accountable. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) he told reporters ahead of the vote, “Our position is that if Kevin McCarthy is the Speaker of the House and we lack the ability to ensure that there is grit behind the agenda and energy behind our oversight, [then not much else matters].” Gaetz continued, “I’m not here to be in a puppet show where we pass a bunch of messenger bills, send them to the Senate, watch them die, don’t use leverage, and don’t hold the Biden administration accountable. “

What does everyone else think?

Most grassroots Republicans are not happy. Speaking to reporters ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Representative Kat Cammack (R-FL) said of McCarthy’s critics: “[I]It was about controlling the committees and trying to basically put people in positions where they can raise more money. This has nothing to do with improving our country.” He described those willing to vote against the Republican leader as “the radical 2%. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) expressed frustration that this could delay Republicans from starting to try to pass their agenda as well. “You really have to get out of the gates fast in that first quarter to have an effect … so there’s no time to waste right now.”

What happens now?

Speaking to reporters ahead of the vote, McCarthy said: ‘I hold the record for the longest speech ever given on the floor. I have no problem getting a record for the most votes [held in a speaker election].” The record is 133 rounds of voting, which were cast over two months in 1856 to choose a new speaker. As of right now, with so many votes for someone else who would need to get their way, it looks like McCarthy too has a shot at overcoming that distinction.

Update, January 3, 6 PM ET: This story has been updated with the outcome of the third ballot and the update.


Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks after a closed-door meeting with the GOP Conference as he pursues the role of House speaker as the 118th Congress meets January 3 in Washington, DC. Alex Brandon / AP