Republican Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives ran into trouble in a series of votes on Tuesday, as hardline conservatives rebelled against him, leaving the new Republican majority in turmoil.
In what could prove to be a brutal showdown between hardliners and the overwhelming majority of House Republicans, McCarthy twice fell short of the 218-vote majority needed to succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker. It was the first time in a century that the House failed to elect a speaker on the first vote.
McCarthy also appeared to lack enough support as the voting went into a third round on Tuesday afternoon, with at least 20 Republicans voting for popular conservative Representative Jim Jordan to try to block McCarthy, even though Jordan did not put himself forward as a candidate.
McCarthy showed no sign of withdrawing from the contest after the second ballot, telling reporters: “We stay in it ’til we win … it will eventually change.”
A protracted speaker election could undermine House Republican hopes of moving forward quickly on priorities including investigations of President Joe Biden’s administration and family, as well as legislative priorities involving the economy, U.S. energy independence and border security.
A standoff would leave the House largely paralyzed and could force lawmakers to consider another candidate. In addition to Jordan, incoming Majority Leader Steve Scalise was seen as a possible candidate.
McCarthy had served as the House minority leader and sought to become speaker, a position second in the line of succession to the U.S. presidency, only to draw strong opposition from his party’s right flank.
House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries outran McCarthy twice in Tuesday’s voting by 212 to 203 votes. Hardline conservative Representative Andy Biggs ran against McCarthy in the initial ballot and received 10 votes.
A majority of those voting, not a plurality, is needed to determine a speaker.
In the second vote, popular conservative Jordan sought to rally support for California Republican McCarthy, only to find himself put forward as a nominee by McCarthy opponent Matt Gaetz of Florida.
“We need to rally around him,” Jordan had said in an impassioned speech on the House floor. “I think Kevin McCarthy’s the right guy to lead us.”
Jordan, 58, is a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump and a co-founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
A former college wrestler who represents a congressional district in Ohio, Jordan was nominated on Tuesday as a rival to McCarthy but three times voted for him. Jordan is preparing to oversee the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation of the Justice Department and FBI under Biden.
It was a disconcerting start to the new majority for McCarthy and highlights the challenges Republicans could face over the next two years, heading into the 2024 presidential election. Their slim majority gives greater clout to a small group of hardliners, who want to focus on dealing defeat to Democrats and pushing various investigations.
Republicans won a narrow 222-212 majority in November’s midterm election, meaning that McCarthy – or any candidate for speaker – will need to unify a fractious caucus to win the gavel. Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate.
McCarthy’s hardline opponents are concerned that he is less deeply invested in the culture wars and partisan rivalries that have dominated the House – and even more so since Trump’s White House years.
Before the vote, McCarthy tried to persuade the holdouts during a closed-door party meeting, vowing to stay in the race until he gets the necessary votes, but many participants emerged from the gathering undaunted.
It was not clear whether McCarthy, who has the support of a wide majority of his caucus, would have the support to overcome the hard-line opposition and win the speakership. He once before, in 2015, tried for the speakership and failed amid conservative opposition.
McCarthy has spent his adult life in politics – as a congressional staffer, then state legislator before being elected to the House in 2006. As speaker, McCarthy would be well placed to frustrate Biden’s legislative ambitions.
But any Republican speaker will have the tough task of managing a House Republican caucus moving ever rightward, with uncompromising tendencies and – at least among some lawmakers – close allegiances to Trump.
The record number of voting rounds to elect a House speaker is 133 over a two-month period in the 1850s.
The Democrats picked Jeffries to serve as minority leader after Pelosi, the first woman to serve as speaker, announced that she would step down from her leadership role. She will remain in office as a representative.