Republican rebellion against Kevin McCarthy plunges US into chaos

The candidate once again failed to be elected speaker due to the party hardliners, meaning all legislative activity in the House is on hold

Kevin McCarthy surrounded by journalists upon his arrival at the Capitol on Wednesday.
Kevin McCarthy surrounded by journalists upon his arrival at the Capitol on Wednesday.WIN MCNAMEE (Getty Images via AFP)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump don’t agree on almost anything, but on Wednesday they used the same adjective to describe what is happening in the US House of Representatives: “embarrassing.” For the first time in a century, the majority party has been unable to elect a House speaker on the first ballot – or the second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth. Kevin McCarthy’s failure to be elected speaker has plunged the Republicans into messy infighting. It has also blocked all parliamentary activity and paralyzed the House. For how long? Nobody knows. The House will convene again on Thursday at noon.

The Republicans achieved a narrow House majority (222 to 213) in the midterm elections on November 8. But there was no red wave. Many in the party blamed former US president Donald Trump for the disappointing outcome. And the landslide win of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is shaping up to be a contender to Trump, has also stirred party divisions. But it is the speakership vote that has made these schisms more visible than ever.

Not since 1923 has a nominee for speaker failed to win in the first vote. McCarthy has been House minority leader for four years and when the Republicans regained control of the House in November, he was confident that he would be named speaker, the third-highest authority in the United States after the vice president and president.

McCarthy, however, lost the first vote after 20 Republican hardliners refused to support him. The rebels don’t have a viable alternative candidate. They have been voting for different people as they go along, just to ensure that McCarthy is not elected. There are various reasons why these factions don’t want him to be elected speaker. He has also been blamed for the midterm election results and is accused of being too tepid against Biden. And there is also a personal component: the rebels may be in the minority, but they want to impose their conditions on the rest of the Republican Party.

The internal opposition is led by the Freedom Caucus, the hardest right bloc in the party, which presented McCarthy with a list of somewhat humiliating demands in December. These included allowing a single House member to initiate a vote to remove the speaker. McCarthy agreed to set the threshold at five House members.

The 57-year-old also made other concessions. He promised to dissolve the January 6 House select committee investigating the siege of the US Capitol in 2021, and to create a new commission to probe whether the federal government is being used as a political weapon. This would be a way for Republicans to attack the BIden administration and question its decisions, such as the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. McCarthy also promised to ban remote voting and remote participation in House committees, to remove the metal detectors installed in the House chamber and ensure bills are posted for 72 hours before they’re put to a vote.

But his critics say these concessions are not enough. On January 1, a group of nine lawmakers published a letter which stated McCarthy’s response to their demands was “insufficient.” The letter also points out that McCarthy did not address their demand that the speaker refrain from getting involved in open primaries. It also questioned him personally, claiming he represents the “continuation of past, and ongoing, Republican failures.”

The Republican hardliners are Trump supporters, and most of them falsely believe the 2020 election was stolen. But they are no longer even heeding Trump’s calls for unity. “It’s time for all our great Republican members of the House of Representatives to vote in favor of Kevin [McCarthy],” Trump posted on Truth Social on Wednesday morning. “Republicans: don’t turn a huge win into a gigantic, embarrassing loss. It’s time to celebrate. You deserve it. Kevin McCarthy will do a good job… and maybe even a great job. Just watch!”

Even Trump realizes that the divisions are hurting the Republican Party, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the hard-right members. “The [ex]president needs to tell Kevin McCarthy that, ‘Sir, you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw,’” Republican Lauren Boebert said on the House floor.

McCarthy, however, remains defiant. “We stay in until we win,” he said as he left the Capitol on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is paralyzed until a speaker is elected. Members cannot be sworn in, all legislative activity is on hold, and there are doubts about what would happen in an emergency.

The Senate, under Democratic control, has officially taken office. Without control of the House, Biden’s legislative agenda will face stumbling blocks. But no one was expecting the House would be paralyzed. “For the first time in 100 years, we can’t move,” remarked Biden on Wednesday. “It’s not a good look. It’s not a good thing. It’s the United States of America. And I hope they get their act together.”

No one is sure how the situation will be resolved. In 1855, it took 133 ballots and two months to elect the House speaker. One possibility is that McCarthy will withdraw and a new nominee, possibly his No. 2 Steve Scalise, will be elected. But the Californian congressman shows no sign of throwing in the towel. What’s more, some of his supporters are even wearing badges with the acronym O.K. for Only Kevin.

Another possibility is that a deal will be reached with the Republican dissidents. McCarthy and his allies are taking advantage of the timeouts to launch new negotiations, and it appears that some progress is being made. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a McCarthy-aligned leadership PAC, has announced it will refrain from spending in contested Republican primary races. In last year’s primaries, that PAC funded moderate candidates, whom they considered to have a better chance of beating the Democrats. This move was taken as an affront by the party’s hardliners.

McCarthy needs the rebels to vote for him because their abstention could end up giving the speakership to the Democratic candidate, Hakeen Jeffries. The Democrats appear to be enjoying the show, even jokingly sharing photos of themselves with popcorn.

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