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House leadership is in limbo as McCarthy loses 3 rounds of voting for speaker

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks after a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning with the GOP conference as he pursues the speaker of the House.
Alex Brandon
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks after a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning with the GOP conference as he pursues the speaker of the House.

Updated January 3, 2023 at 8:26 PM ET

Leadership of the House of Representatives remains in limbo as California GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy faces internal opposition to his bid for speaker.

On the first day of the new Congress, McCarthy failed to secure the 218 votes necessary to become speaker of the House in three rounds of voting. The House cannot conduct any business, including swearing in new members, until a speaker is chosen.

Tuesday's vote was the first time in a century that the election of a House speaker took multiple ballots to complete. The longest vote in U.S. history took place in 1855, lasting 133 rounds over two months, from December 1855 to February 1856.

McCarthy faces a Republican bloc of critics who want changes to the way the House operates. Although he's given in to many of their demands, he remains short of the votes needed.

Instead of celebrating their return to the majority on the first day, McCarthy and other GOP leaders were sorting out how to respond to an open rebellion that showcased division and cast doubt on their ability to govern.

McCarthy maintains he will not step down and balloting will continue until he can secure the necessary support.

"They can go through whoever they want to go through, and they'll come to the conclusion that they don't, they can't get there," McCarthy told reporters outside of the House floor.

House members voted Tuesday to adjourn until noon ET on Wednesday, when a fourth vote is expected to take place.

How the votes shook out

Republicans hold the majority in the House now, but it's customary for the minority party to nominate their leader for speaker, and Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York had more votes than McCarthy in all three voting rounds.

Round 1 saw: Jeffries, 212; McCarthy, 203; and 19 votes for other Republicans. In Round 2, the counts for Jeffries and McCarthy stayed the same, however, 19 votes went to Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan.

In Round 3, the vote breakdown was similar, but McCarthy lost one Republican — Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida — who voted for Jordan.

Jordan spoke in support of McCarthy on the House floor just before the second round began, encouraging his colleagues to vote for him.

"The differences we may have ... pale in comparison to us and the left, which now unfortunately controls the other party," Jordan said. "So, we had better come together. ... That's what the people want us to do, and I think Kevin McCarthy is the right guy to lead us, I really do, or else I wouldn't be up here giving this speech."

Speaking to reporters Tuesday — before he was nominated — Jordan said that he wouldn't want that job. "I'm for Kevin McCarthy and I've told you guys I don't know how many times, I want to chair the Judiciary Committee," he said.

Florida's Rep. Matt Gaetz nominated Jordan after the first round of voting, saying that perhaps the person best suited for the job is the person who doesn't want it.

"Maybe the right person for the job of speaker of the House isn't someone who wants it so bad," Gaetz said. "Maybe the right person for the job of speaker of the House isn't someone who has sold shares of himself for more than a decade to get it. Maybe Jim Jordan is the right person for speaker of the House because he is not beholden to the lobbyists and special interests who have corrupted this place and corrupted this nation under the leadership under both Republicans and Democrats."

Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has emerged as a vocal defender of McCarthy in the leadup to the failed votes, expressed frustration at her Republican colleagues who denied McCarthy the gavel Tuesday and hoped they reconsidered before Wednesday's meeting.

"I hope they're talking tonight, I think they should keep talking, because it's our job," she said to reporters after the House adjourned. "It's not a popularity contest. It's not who we like and who we don't like ... that is the failure of Republicans. The Republicans are the party of 'never,' and it's always 'never' when they don't like somebody, and that's how we failed the country."

Democrats call it a "sad day for democracy"

Democrats stuck together with overwhelming support of Jeffries, noting his historical nomination as first Black legislator to lead a congressional chamber. Many who voted for Jeffries did so enthusiastically and often intoning the names of civil rights leaders and other notable Black members of Congress as they did so. There is no expectation at this point that any Democratic lawmaker will cross party lines to assist McCarthy's path to the speakership.

Jeffries told reporters after the House adjourned that Democrats hope to work with Republicans. However, he said, it's not their place to solve Republicans' internal dilemmas. He said "extreme MAGA Republicans" have taken over the party, leaving "reasonable" Republicans with little recourse.

"Today, for the first time in 100 years, the House of Representatives failed to organize on opening day. Sad day for the House of Representatives as an institution, sad day for democracy, it's a sad day for the American people," Jeffries said.

"House Democrats are unified, ready, willing and able to get to work on behalf of everyday Americans. We are prepared to try to find common ground with the other side of the aisle to solve problems on behalf of the American people, but we don't have a willing partner in House Republicans."

What defectors want

Of those who voted against McCarthy on Tuesday, many holdouts sought and got support for new rules on how legislation is considered in the House, and how oversight investigations of the Biden administration will be structured.

McCarthy also agreed to to change a rule that would allow a group of five members to offer a resolution to remove the speaker. He insisted for weeks he wouldn't agree to lower the threshold on how many sponsors are needed on a "motion to vacate the chair" because it effectively weakens the power of the speaker. But McCarthy gave into pressure from those on the right since he has such a small margin and can't afford more than a few defections.

Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Scott Perry, a leading McCarthy critic who signed onto a letter with nine other Republicans circulated on New Year's day, tweeted: "nothing changes when nothing changes." He cited the letter, which states "the times call for a radical departure of the status quo — not a continuation of the past, and ongoing Republican failures."

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, Perry said he and other members planning to vote against McCarthy took a plan to him Monday night, outlining what he needed to do to win their support, and thus 218 votes to win. While McCarthy agreed to some of their requests, McCarthy still rejected other demands, like bringing a bill to the floor to impose term limits for representatives.

"We took an offer to him last night with things that are completely and wholly within his purview. He rejected it summarily," Perry said Tuesday morning.

Chaos is on display

A first-ballot failure is embarrassing to the top Republican who led his party's efforts to win back the majority.

McCarthy ran for speaker in 2015 when then House Speaker John Boehner stepped down, but withdrew abruptly from the race after conceding he didn't have the votes to win.

In the last couple of election cycles, McCarthy led the political effort for House Republicans — raising, along with affiliated super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, roughly a half a billion dollars and campaigning for GOP candidates across the country. He and his allies predicted a "red wave" in the fall, but ended up eking out just a four-seat majority.

The public vote on the House floor showcased the GOP divisions and chaos. Ahead of the vote, McCarthy's allies insisted they won't vote for any alternative candidate, and even if it's messy, they will stick with him.

But nothing else can happen in the House of Representatives until a speaker is elected. It's the only leadership position mentioned in the Constitution.

There have been some discussions about trying to rally around a consensus candidate, but McCarthy's allies have been pushing what they say is an "O.K. " strategy — "Only Kevin." There is potential for the process to drag out for hours or even days if McCarthy is unable to convince some of the holdouts to back him.

McCarthy's No. 2, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, has publicly backed McCarthy and predicted he will be elected speaker. But if McCarthy fails to convince enough members to back him GOP members could turn to Scalise as a potential alternative — or some other conservative candidate.

Scalise, who is in line to serve as House majority leader, released an agenda for the first two weeks of January. He pledged the House would vote on measures to cancel the boost in funding to hire more IRS agents, and bills dealing with border security and abortion. But until the speaker is elected, the House committees can't form, members cannot be sworn in to start the new session, and the rest of the business is stalled out.

Georgia Public Broadcasting reporterStephen Fowler contributed to this report.

Katherine Swartz contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 2, 2023 at 9:00 PM PST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Kevin McCarthy and the Congressional Leadership Fund had raised roughly half a trillion dollars. In fact, it is closer to half a billion.
Corrected: January 2, 2023 at 9:00 PM PST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Kevin McCarthy and the Congressional Leadership Fund had raised roughly half a trillion dollars. In fact, it is closer to half a billion.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.