Kevin McCarthy’s once-in-a-century House speakership failure

Kevin McCarthy’s once-in-a-century House speakership failure

The 118th Congress got underway on Tuesday when the House of Representatives convened to pick a new speaker. But after five hours and three distinct votes, they adjourned without selecting a speaker and without the members having taken their oaths of office. Republican Kevin McCarthy received the majority of votes, but he was unable to get the absolute majority required by the constitution to be elected speaker. Congress needed more than one vote to choose a speaker for the first time in a century.
The hard-right members of his conference revolted against the California Republican, making a series of interconnected demands that blended politics, procedure, and personal issues. Republicans who were not party members divided their votes, while Democrats remained unified and supported their leader, Hakeem Jeffries. In a GOP conference internal vote in November, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) was McCarthy’s stalking horse opponent and received ten votes. Nine dispersed their votes among representatives Byron Donalds and Jim Jordan (both Republicans from Ohio) (R-FL).

The rebels were House Freedom Caucus members, many of whom had been steadfast supporters of Donald Trump and proponents of a very conservative political stance. While some, like Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), had Tea Party origins, many of them were MAGA bombers who rose to political prominence more recently, such as Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO). However, not every one of the roughly thirty members of the House Freedom Caucus opposed McCarthy. Reps. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Jordan are two who have made their support known.

In spite of the Ohio Republican’s statement for McCarthy on the second ballot, the rebels gathered around Jordan. While all Democrats stayed unified behind Jeffries, and McCarthy’s followers stood behind the California Republican, all 19 anti-McCarthy Republicans voted for Jordan. Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) supported McCarthy on the first two ballots but voted for Jordan on the third, maintaining almost the same margins. This prepared the ground for an unparalleled political deadlock in contemporary history.

What do McCarthy’s foes desire?
The short answer is that McCarthy will have less influence and the House Republican Conference’s right wing will have greater control. One of their requests is to work to undermine the speaker’s office generally and give rank-and-file House members — and, in particular, rank-and-file House GOP members — more power over legislation. Both partisan speakers have been consolidating power in their own hands in recent years. The majority of important legislation is now negotiated by leadership in both parties, and it is only presented for a vote in a small number of comprehensive bills, like the 2022 social spending bill that Democrats have dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act. As a result, members have less opportunity to introduce amendments.
Additionally, they want to exert more pressure on McCarthy. The “motion to vacate,” a procedural matter that allows for an affirmative or negative vote on whether the office of the speaker should be declared empty and a fresh vote held, has been a major source of conflict. Republican rebels utilized this in 2015 to oust John Boehner, who was the speaker at the time. At that time, any member might demand a vote on this matter. Boehner was in charge of the House GOP conference at the time, which was contentious despite having a far greater majority than they have today.

The House’s rules were modified under the House Democrats so that only the party leaders could propose the motion. Critics of McCarthy want to set a new precedent. With a five-vote nominal majority held by Republicans in the House, the prospect of a move to vacate serves as a sword dangling over any speaker. It implies that a small group of Republicans would have the power to remove McCarthy as a speaker at any time. McCarthy had, of course, been adamantly opposed to this. However, he has proposed lowering the need for a motion to vacate to five in an effort to appease opponents. In order to compel a vote, the motion would have to be jointly proposed by five members.

In addition, they want to guarantee votes on issues like term limits, a balanced budget, and border security while putting hard-right members on powerful committees. They believe that previous Republican Congresses have not done a good enough job of holding Democrats accountable. “Our position is that if Kevin McCarthy is the Speaker of the House, and we don’t have the ability to ensure that there is oomph behind the agenda and energy behind our oversight, [then not much else matters],” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said to reporters prior to the vote. “I’m not here to participate in some puppet show where we pass a bunch of messaging bills, send them to the Senate, and watch them die, fail to use leverage, and don’t hold the Biden administration accountable,” Gaetz continued.

What do other people think?
Republicans in general are not pleased. Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) said of McCarthy’s detractors at a press conference before the vote on Tuesday: “[I]t was all about controlling the committees and trying to essentially place individuals in positions where they can raise more money. Nothing about this advances the welfare of our nation. She referred to the Republican leader’s opponents as “the extremist 2 percent.” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) voiced displeasure about the possibility that this might prevent Republicans from beginning to push for their own agenda. There is currently no time to squander because you really need to start strong in order to have an impact in the first quarter.

What occurs next?
Voting will continue on Wednesday at noon, with Gaetz, a leading opponent of McCarthy, adopting a mocking comparison of him and his friends to the Taliban, while McCarthy is encouraged by a new endorsement from former President Donald Trump on his Truth Social website. After all, the Taliban prevailed in the end, as Gaetz acknowledged on Twitter.

Before the vote on Tuesday, McCarthy told reporters, “I hold the record for the longest floor address ever. Getting a record for the most votes cast in a speaker election is not an issue for me. The most votes were cast in 133 rounds over the course of two months in 1856 to choose a new speaker. As of right now, it appears that McCarthy has a possibility of surpassing that distinction as well, given the number of votes that would need to change in favour of someone else.