(NEXSTAR) – Unable to elect Republican leader Kevin McCarthy as the new House speaker Tuesday, the Republicans adjourned for the day in disarray as the party tries to regroup from his a historic defeat after a long, messy start for the new Congress.
The surprise end to Day One shows there is no easy way out for McCarthy whose effort to claim the gavel collapsed to opposition from conservatives. Needing 218 votes in the full House, McCarthy got just 203 in two rounds — less even than Democrat Hakeem Jeffries in the GOP-controlled chamber. A third ballot was even worse, with McCarthy losing 20 votes as night fell on the new House GOP majority, tensions rising as all other business came to a halt.
The House agreed to return at noon Wednesday.
McCarthy had pledged a “battle on the floor” for as long as it took to overcome right-flank fellow Republicans who were refusing to give him their votes. But it was not at all clear how the embattled GOP leader could rebound after becoming the first House speaker nominee in 100 years to fail to win the gavel from his fellow party members on the initial vote.
Without a speaker, the House cannot fully form — swearing in its members, naming its committee chairmen, engaging in floor proceedings and launching investigations of the Biden administration.
“We all came here to get things done,” said the second-ranking Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise, in a rousing speech urging his colleagues to drop their protest.
Railing against President Joe Biden’s agenda, Scalise said, “We can’t start fixing those problems until we elect Kevin McCarthy our next speaker.”
Before the second vote, rival-turned-McCarthy ally, conservative Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who got six votes in the first round, rose to urge his colleagues, even those who backed him as an alternative, to drop their opposition.
“We have to rally around him, come together” Jordan said of McCarthy.
But Rep Matt Gaetz of Florida followed with a vigorous re-endorsement of Jordan, underscoring the chaos within the party.
“I rise to nominate the most talented, hardest working member of the Republican conference, who just gave a speech with more vision than we have ever heard from the alternative,” Gaetz said.
Jordan got 19 votes in the second round and 20 in the third.
Smiling through it all, McCarthy huddled briefly with aides then appeared intent on simply trying to wear down his colleagues. Earlier, he strode into the chamber, posed for photos, and received a standing ovation from many on his side of the aisle after being nominated by the third-ranking Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik, who said the Californian from gritty Bakersfield “has what it takes” to lead House Republicans.
“No one has worked harder for this majority than Kevin McCarthy,” said Stefanik (R-N.Y).
But on that first vote a challenge was quickly raised by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a conservative former leader of the Freedom Caucus, who was nominated by a fellow conservative as speaker. In all, 19 Republicans peeled away, denying McCarthy the majority he needs as they cast votes for Biggs, Jordan or others in protest.
The mood was tense, at least on the Republican side, as lawmakers rose from their seats, in a lengthy first round of in-person voting. Democrats were joyous as they cast their own historic votes for their leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the first Black person to lead a major American political party. Jeffries received the most votes Tuesday, garnering 212.
The Hill has identified potential alternative GOP speaker candidates, including House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.).
Earlier in the day, McCarthy emerged from a contentious closed-door meeting with fellow House Republicans unable to win over detractors and lacking the support needed to become speaker. He vowed to fight to the finish — even if it takes multiple tries in a public spectacle that would underscore divisions in his party and weaken its leadership in the first days of the new Congress.
A core group of conservatives led by the Freedom Caucus and aligned with Donald Trump’s MAGA agenda were furious, calling the private meeting a “beat down” by McCarthy allies and remaining steadfast in their opposition to the GOP leader.
“There’s one person who could have changed all this,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a leader of Trump’s effort to challenge the 2020 presidential election.
The group said McCarthy refused the group’s last-ditch offer for rules changes in a meeting late Monday at the Capitol.
“If you want to drain the swamp you can’t put the biggest alligator in control of the exercise,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).
“He eagerly dismissed us,” said Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).
The Hill reports that McCarthy criticized Gaetz on Tuesday after he reportedly told House GOP members that he doesn’t care if the chamber elects Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the incoming Democratic leader, as speaker instead of McCarthy.
Lawmakers convened in a new era of divided government as Democrats relinquish control of the House after midterm election losses. While the Senate remains in Democratic hands, barely, House Republicans are eager to confront President Joe Biden’s agenda after two years of a Democratic Party control of both houses of Congress.
Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had gaveled closed the last session moments earlier, moving aside for new Democratic leadership, to standing ovation from colleagues on her side of the aisle.
The chaplain opened with a prayer seeking to bring the 118th Congress to life.
But first, House Republicans had to elect a speaker, second in succession to the presidency.
“Let the show begin,” quipped one lawmaker on the Democratic side of the aisle.
McCarthy was in line to replace Pelosi, but he headed into the vote with no guarantee of success. He faced entrenched detractors within his own ranks. Despite attempts to cajole, harangue and win them over — even with an endorsement from former President Trump — McCarthy has fallen short.
Democrats enthusiastically nominated Jeffries, who is taking over as party leader, as their choice for speaker — a typically symbolic gesture in the minority but one that took on new importance as Republicans were in disarray.
“A Latino is nominating in this chamber a Black man for our leader for the first time in American history,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, the third-ranking Democrat, in nominating his colleague.
Democrats leapt to applause, many casting their votes “proudly,” as one Black lawmaker, Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio said, for the historic new Democratic leader.
The morning meeting of House Republicans turned raucus ahead of what’s traditionally a celebratory day as newly elected members arrive to be sworn into office. Families in tow, the members of the new Congress prepare to be sworn into the House and Senate for the start of the two-year legislative session.
A new generation of Trump-aligned Republicans led the opposition to McCarthy. They don’t think McCarthy is conservative enough or tough enough to battle Democrats. It’s reminiscent of the last time Republicans took back the House majority, after the 2010 midterms, when the tea-party class ushered in a new era of hardball politics, eventually sending Speaker John Boehner to an early retirement.
“Nothing’s changed,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.). “The problem is Kevin McCarthy.”
Typically it takes a majority of the House’s 435 members, 218 votes, to become the speaker. With just 222 GOP seats, McCarthy could afford to lose only a handful of their votes. A speaker can win with fewer than 218 votes, as Pelosi and Boehner did, if some lawmakers are absent or simply vote present.
But McCarthy has failed to win over a core — and potentially growing — group of right-flank Republicans led by the conservative Freedom Caucus, despite weeks of closed-door meetings and promised changes to the House rules. Nearly a dozen Republicans have publicly raised concerns about McCarthy.
Some of the staunch Republican conservatives challenged McCarthy in the private session. He pushed back, according to a Republican in the room and granted anonymity to discuss the closed-door session.
A sizable but less vocal group of McCarthy supporters started its own campaign, “Only Kevin,” as a way to shut down the opposition and pledge their support only to him.
Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), a leader of a more pragmatic conservative group, said “frustration was rising” with the minority faction.
“Kevin McCarthy is the right guy to lead this conference, the right guy to be speaker of the House,” Johnson said.
McCarthy’s candidacy for speaker should have been an almost sure thing. He led his party into the majority, raising millions of campaign dollars and traveling the country to recruit many of the newer lawmakers to run for office.
A speaker’s contest last went through multiple rounds in 1923.
Yet McCarthy has been here before, abruptly dropping out of the speaker’s race in 2015 when it was clear he did not have support from conservatives to replace Boehner.
It was all in stark contrast to the other side of the Capitol, where Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell will officially become the chamber’s longest-serving party leader in history.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.