WASHINGTON (AFP) — The deeply riven US House of Representatives was engulfed in crisis for a second day running Wednesday as fresh rounds of voting failed to produce a winner in the race for speaker.
Conservative hardliners have been blocking establishment pick Kevin McCarthy in a humiliating standoff that has paralyzed the lower chamber of Congress since it flipped to narrow Republican control after the new year.
Some 20 Republicans denied McCarthy a majority in three drawn-out votes on Wednesday — forcing another overnight adjournment with little to show for the drama — after the rebels had spent Tuesday blocking the California congressman’s path to the gavel.
Republican infighting, described by Democratic President Joe Biden as “embarrassing for the country,” has made the 2023 speakership race the first in a century to require multiple rounds of voting.
The stalemate has left the chamber unable to swear in members, fill committees, adopt rules for legislating or negotiate a path through the paralysis.
The House adjourned until noon on Thursday after the sixth indecisive ballot, allowing the Republicans a few precious hours to regroup and settle on a new strategy before going back into the fray.
McCarthy — who has raised millions of dollars to elect right-wing lawmakers — dragged his party back to a 222-212 House majority in last year’s midterms after four years out of power in the chamber.
The 57-year-old former entrepreneur has long coveted the opportunity to replace Democrat Nancy Pelosi, something of an icon in US politics who held the gavel in the last Congress.
But McCarthy’s speaker bid has opened a troubling rift within the House Republicans, with centrists referring to the hard-right faction leading the charge against him as the “Taliban 20.”
The standoff sparked frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations as McCarthy’s allies sought to cut a deal with his conservative detractors that could also win the approval of moderates.
US media reported that the rival sides were in talks about setting up a “negotiating group” to hash out their differences, made up of four McCarthy allies and four representatives of the renegade Republicans.
McCarthy meanwhile told reporters in Congress he planned to stay in the race and had spoken to his biggest VIP backer, Donald Trump, who was still supporting his candidacy.
The former president duly called for an end to the McCarthy blockade, warning the renegade Republicans not to “turn a great triumph into a giant and embarrassing defeat.”
The comments didn’t move the needle at all on the House floor and were curtly dismissed by normally staunch Trump ally Lauren Boebert, who said her “favorite president” had things backward.
“The president needs to tell Kevin McCarthy that, sir, you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw,” she said.
No House business can take place without a speaker, the chamber’s presiding officer who is second in line to the presidency, meaning lawmakers-elect have to continue voting for a speaker until someone wins a majority.
Should McCarthy, who has lost every round so far to Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries, ultimately decide to pull out, the two parties are likely to start casting around for a “unity” candidate — a consensus Republican willing to work across the aisle.
The Republicans will first consult their own ranks though, where two McCarthy loyalists — incoming House majority leader Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan, a darling of the right — look like the most viable alternatives.
Some of McCarthy’s detractors have taken issue with specific political positions, but many others have just indicated broad distaste for his candidacy.
“Every single Republican in Congress knows that Kevin does not actually believe anything. He has no ideology,” Florida congressman Matt Gaetz recently wrote of McCarthy.
McCarthy has already given away the store to his conservative opponents, agreeing to changes in the way the House does business, to stop opposing far-right candidates in open primaries and to lower the threshold of support needed to oust a speaker.
But not one of them has shown signs of wavering so far.
Boebert and Gaetz held talks with McCarthy after a brief early evening adjournment but Gaetz told reporters afterward that the would-be speaker was “a desperate guy whose vote share is dropping” while Boebert predicted “increased opposition coming Kevin’s way.”