Hard right of the Republican Party flexes its muscle in vote for speaker

Embattled Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was denied the speakership of the House of Representatives, with dozens of pro-Trump members of his party voting against him

Miguel Jiménez
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Jan 3.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Jan 3.JONATHAN ERNST (REUTERS)

This past Tuesday should have been a day of celebration for the Republican Party. After four years of Democratic dominance, the right-wingers have finally regained their majority in the House of Representatives. However, the Democrats were the ones who ended up partying, while the Republican leadership was left fuming.

The new legislature has come into session with an immediate disagreement among Republican congresspeople regarding who should be voted in as speaker. Kevin McCarthy – the Republican leader in the House and the establishment candidate – lost three consecutive ballots, with hardliners opting for fringe alternatives. It is the first time in over a century that such a clash has occurred.

A total of 20 Republican representatives have turned their backs on McCarthy. Despite the humiliation from within his own ranks, the candidate had refused to throw in the towel, while his fellow party leaders haven’t offered up a compromise. The vote will now need to be repeated on Wednesday, January 4, or on subsequent days, until a single person finally achieves a majority of the 435 members of the House.

The record wait for a US speaker – which stands since 1855 – was 133 rounds of voting, which resulted in a total freeze of legislative activity for nearly two months.

The Republicans won a narrow majority in the November 8 midterm elections, far from the “red wave” that former president Donald Trump predicted. They currently hold 222 seats, while the Democrats have 212 (Virginia Democrat Donald McEachin passed away from cancer shortly after being elected).

To be elected speaker of the House of Representatives, an absolute majority of 218 seats is needed. From very early on in the vote on Tuesday, it was apparent that McCarthy didn’t have enough support from within his party to succeed outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is retiring.

McCarthy – a 57-year-old congressman from California – has tried to make concessions to his party’s hardliners. He even accepted a procedural rule that could potentially result in him being held hostage by the extremists in his party during a two-year term: it would allow a vote of no confidence to be held if only five congresspeople request it. He also made other commitments to the conspiracy theorists in the Freedom Caucus – the hardest right bloc within his party. In the end, however, nothing appeared to satisfy the Trump loyalists.

Representative Elise Stefanik – a New York Republican and a rising star in her party – fervently supported McCarthy’s candidacy, assuring her fellow members that no one has worked as hard as the leader to achieve the new Republican majority. McCarthy has been the minority leader in the House for the past four years of Democratic rule and has the support of moderates within his party.

Several Republicans, however, aren’t fans of the aspiring speaker. They accuse him of having made too many concessions to the Democratic Party over the years, while others hold him responsible for the disappointing electoral results in November. Some, meanwhile, are simply taking advantage of the position of strength that the narrow Republican majority has given them. They want to flex their muscle and impose conditions on how the legislative body will function going forward.

Although McCarthy has had some run-ins with Trump in the past, the former president has actually tried to convince his base to support the Republican leader. So far, he has failed to get his own people in line.

The Democrats have taken advantage of the chaos to nominate their own candidate: Representative Hakeem Jeffries, of New York City. They are attempting to emphasize unity, in contrast to the disarray of the Republican caucus.

California Congressman Pete Aguilar – who chairs the Democratic caucus – nominated Jeffries in a speech that received enthusiastic applause from his fellow Democrats. “We are united!” he proclaimed.

At the moment, Jeffries has significant support – all 212 votes from Democratic House members. In the first round of voting, he actually managed to beat out McCarthy, who only garnered 203 votes. Andy Biggs and Jim Jordan – two far-right extremists – received the rest. As voting proceeded, McCarthy still couldn’t get any closer to the magic number of 218.

The House has agreed to adjourn until Wednesday at noon.

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