Despite offering concessions, McCarthy denied speakership of US House for the 11th time

The hardest-right members of the Republican Party voted down the California congressman’s candidacy for the third day in a row, leaving the legislative branch without a leader. This hasn’t happened since 1859

Kevin McCarthy arrives at the Capitol Building on Thursday, January 5, 2023.
Kevin McCarthy arrives at the Capitol Building on Thursday, January 5, 2023.NATHAN HOWARD (Getty)
Miguel Jiménez

The political suspense shows no sign of letting up in the United States. The House of Representatives is still being held hostage by the hard-right of the Republican Party, three days into the new session of Congress.

On Thursday, the establishment Republican candidate to preside over the lower chamber of the US Congress – Representative Kevin McCarthy of California – offered new concessions to the 21 ultra-conservative congresspeople in his party. But the strategy didn’t work. He lost the vote to become speaker of the House for the 11th time in less than 72 hours.

The election of the House speaker is key for representatives to be officially sworn in and for the business of the legislative branch of government to proceed. But 21 pro-Trump congresspeople have, time and time again, boycotted McCarthy’s candidacy, opting to vote for different fringe candidates. Not since 1859 has it taken so many rounds of voting to find a consensus – that year, it took 44 attempts to elect a speaker.

McCarthy and his allies – the mainstream of the Republican Party – have been using recesses between roll calls to negotiate with the far-right Freedom Caucus. So far, all attempts to strike a deal have failed.

The 57-year-old Californian needs 218 votes to become speaker of the House – a majority of the 435 seats. However, the Democrats hold 212 seats – meaning that, with 21 extremist Republicans unwilling to back their party leader, it’s impossible for him to reach the magic number.

The new concessions he has offered will further weaken McCarthy’s position, even if he manages to be elected down the road. He is essentially handing more and more power to the party’s fringe, which is filled with conspiracy theorists and white nationalists who falsely believe that Trump was robbed of the 2020 presidential election. Despite there being 222 Republicans in the House, it appears that a block representing less than 10% of the party will get to set much of the agenda.

Even tepid calls by former president Donald Trump to support McCarthy have had no effect on a party lacking effective leadership. The authority that Trump once had seems to have faded. Despite a partial and narrow Republican victory in the November midterm elections, managing an effective majority is quickly becoming unfeasible. With the Senate and the White House in the hands of the Democratic Party, the right looks to be in total disarray in the only part of the federal government under their control.

Among the new concessions that McCarthy has offered is a special rule that will make it possible for just a single member (out of 435) to submit a no-confidence motion, which would trigger a vote to remove him. With such a sword hanging over his head, it is impossible that his leadership will not be severely weakened, should he even manage to win.

In addition to this, McCarthy is offering the Freedom Caucus a disproportionately high share of the most powerful committee assignments in the House, such as Ways and Means (which writes tax policy), Appropriations (which distributes federal funds to districts) and Administration – which essentially controls every cent within the House of Representatives, including the budgets of individual congresspeople.

However, these concessions have not been enough to sweeten the deal.

McCarthy would like to postpone new votes until negotiations progress, but the group of Republican rebels don’t want to let him stall. They prefer to humiliate him in front of the entire country.

Congressman John James – a Republican from Michigan – presented McCarthy’s nomination on Thursday. He recalled that, in 1855, Nathaniel Banks had to lose 133 votes before being elected speaker by a narrow majority.

“Back then, the leader nominated by the Republican majority won. And today, the leader nominated by the Republican majority will win again,” he emphasized. McCarthy was subsequently voted down four times over the course of the day, before the roll calls were suspended.

Republican Representative Dan Bishop, of North Carolina – a member of the Freedom Caucus – nominated Byron Donalds, an African-American congressman from Florida, for the speakership. Donalds received all 21 of the far-right votes.

“Yesterday, we could have elected the first Black speaker in the United States House of Representatives,” Bishop began, before he was interrupted by the 212 Democratic members, who began to chant: “Hakeem! Hakeem! Hakeem!”

This was in reference to Hakeem Jeffries – an establishment Democratic congressman from New York, who has succeeded Nancy Pelosi as the leader of his party in the House. He is the Democratic nominee for speaker. While he currently has the most votes (212), it is unlikely that he will have a shot at winning, given that no Republican representatives intend on supporting another party’s candidate.

At one point, Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida nominated Donald Trump to be speaker of the House. Nothing in the American constitution notes that the speaker must also be an elected representative of the chamber.

On the ninth ballot, Lauren Boebert – a pro-gun activist who carries a pistol on Capitol Hill – proposed yet another alternative candidate: Kevin Hern, a millionaire congressman from Ohio. But Hern, ignoring this, has chosen to support McCarthy!

After an eleventh round of voting in less than three days, the House finally adjourned, still without a speaker. For another day, at least, the circus continues at the US Capitol.

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