From slapstick comedy to political thriller: Crazy week in US House resembles movie

Normally a routine formality, election of new speaker for House of Representatives sent off the rails by 2 dozen right-wing rebels before McCarthy selected on 4th day of voting

Newly-elected Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, Republican-California, talks to reporters after a contentious battle to lead the GOP majority in the 118th Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, January 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Newly-elected Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, Republican-California, talks to reporters after a contentious battle to lead the GOP majority in the 118th Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, January 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Better than Hollywood?

For the United States Congress, the week began as a feel-good movie, turning into a slapstick farce and finally a taut political thriller.

The basic plot was simple: the election of a speaker in the House of Representatives — in normal times a routine formality — is sent off the rails by two dozen right-wing lawmakers-elect.

And from there it took quite a twist: House members would go on to vote 14 times in a row without electing their speaker — something not seen since the Civil War.

The baby and the dog

The fun and games started on Tuesday in a festive, back-to-school-like atmosphere.

The representatives elected in November’s midterms were on Capitol Hill to be sworn into office, many for the first time.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California swears in members of the 118th Congress on the House floor at the US Capitol in Washington, January 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

They had brought along family members, ready to applaud from the balcony when their loved one took the oath.

First though, under the rules, a House speaker had to be elected. Kevin McCarthy was expected to be voted in without much fuss, his Republican Party having regained control of the lower chamber with a narrow majority.

But a handful of diehards from the hard right of the party had other plans.

They refused to back the Californian, accusing him variously of being too soft on Democrats, not sufficiently supportive of ex-US president Donald Trump, or of lacking political convictions.

In one drawn-out ballot after another, McCarthy emerged short of the necessary majority.

As the impasse deepened, families took the opportunity to visit America’s capital. Some children clambered down to the floor of the House — but seemed resolutely bored by the unfolding drama.

Democrat Jimmy Gomez got a few laughs when he voted with his four-month-old baby, Hodge, hanging on his front in a sling.

Representative Jimmy Gomez listens to the third round of votes for House Speaker on the opening day of the 118th Congress at the US Capitol, January 3, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

On Thursday, it was a pet’s turn when Republican Nancy Mace voted with her dog Libby tucked under her arm.

Popcorn and booze

The scene was quickly turning absurd.

Ordinarily, House sessions are governed by strict rules that prohibit things like dogs, the criticism of other elected officials, speculation about their motives, booing, and so on.

But these rules only come into force after the speaker has been voted in.

Republican Kat Cammack accused Democrats of bringing in “popcorn, blankets and booze” to watch the infighting amongst their opponents.

Amid rising commotion, the House clerk, Cheryl Johnson insisted that order and decorum be maintained until the speaker is elected.

Her plea did little to sway the more boisterous lawmakers.

“I love it,” declared rebel Republican Lauren Boebert, for whom the chaos was a hallmark of a healthy democracy.

A growing number of officials started to show their exasperation, however, as vote after vote failed to deliver a speaker.

Democrat Maxine Waters crossed her arms, made a face and exhaled loudly while several Republicans walked out during a speech by Matt Gaetz, one of the most vocal of the “Taliban 20,” as the rebels were dubbed by their peers.

Prayers and concessions

With confusion reigning on the House floor, non-stop negotiations were churning backstage, with McCarthy offering concessions to try to pull the rebels into line.

Meanwhile, intriguing sub-plots proliferated.

C-Span, the TV channel that broadcasts federal government hearings, captured left-winger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in deep discussion with the Republican Paul Gosar.

In 2021, Gosar had posted an animated video showing him killing her. Ocasio-Cortez later told the press that Gosar was enquiring whether the Democrats were considering helping McCarthy.

Republican George Santos, snubbed by his peers earlier in the week for making up large parts of his CV during his campaign took advantage of the imbroglio to try to build bridges with some of his peers.

On Friday morning, after yet another night of negotiations, some Republicans prayed at the foot of the rostrum — seemingly seeking a divine intervention to break the deadlock.

Lawmakers pray in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, January 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

As the fourth day of voting got underway, McCarthy was seen leaving his seat, over and over, to rally fellow lawmakers in the galleries adjacent to the chamber.

His efforts seemed to be bearing fruit, with about 15 rebels falling into line.

But suddenly a late twist. When McCarthy unexpectedly lost the 14th round of voting late on Friday night, tempers frayed and there was even jostling in the chamber.

Then, soon after midnight, finally a happy ending of sorts. He won the next round, and was named speaker.

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