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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

McCarthy falls short in speaker bid again

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, (R-Calif.) heads to a key meeting with GOP lawmakers on the first day of the 118th Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023.

By Catie Edmondson

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California lost a second vote for speaker on Tuesday as his pitched battle for the top job in the House continued, amid a rebellion among hard-right lawmakers that left the post up for grabs and prompted a historic struggle on the floor at the dawn of the new Republican majority.

The mutiny, waged by ultraconservative lawmakers who for weeks have held fast to their vow to oppose McCarthy, dealt a serious blow to the GOP leader and laid bare deep divisions that threaten to make the party’s House majority ungovernable. But it did not end the California Republican’s bid for speaker. He has vowed to continue seeking the post, forcing multiple votes if necessary until he wins.

“We may have a battle on the floor, but the battle is for the conference and the country,” McCarthy said before the voting began, and following a fiery private meeting with Republicans in which he defiantly told his detractors, “I am not going away.”

House precedent dictates that members will continue to take successive votes until someone — McCarthy or a different nominee — secures the majority needed to prevail. But until Tuesday, the House had not failed to elect a speaker on the first roll call vote since 1923, when the election stretched for nine ballots.

On Tuesday, McCarthy lost on the first ballot, prompting a second round of voting in which he also fell short of the votes needed to win. Right-wing Republicans were coalescing behind Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a founding member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, as an alternative to McCarthy, whom they derided as being single-mindedly obsessed with winning the job and willing to do whatever was necessary to do so.

“Maybe the right person isn’t someone who hasn’t sold shares of himself to get it,” Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida said as he rose to nominate Jordan instead, as McCarthy sat nearby wearing a smirk.

Jordan, a onetime rival who has since allied himself with McCarthy, pleaded with his colleagues to unite behind the California Republican.

“We need to rally around him and come together,” Jordan said.

The failed votes showed publicly the extent of the opposition McCarthy faces in his quest for the speaker’s gavel. On both ballots, 19 Republicans voted against McCarthy, throwing their support behind Jordan, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, another leader of the opposition, and a handful of other conservative lawmakers. With all members of the House present and voting, McCarthy needed to receive 218 votes to become speaker, leaving little room for Republican defections since the party controls 222 seats.

Some of his detractors had telegraphed loudly that they would oppose McCarthy, including Biggs, the former Freedom Caucus chair, and Gaetz. For weeks, discussions about defectors centered around a core group of five vocal conservatives.

But many others, such as Reps. Michael Cloud of Texas, who voted for Jordan, and Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma, a freshman who voted for Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana on the first ballot, had floated under the radar, and the number of defectors quickly approached what McCarthy’s team had privately hoped would be the worst-case scenario.

What was supposed to be a day of jubilation for Republicans instead devolved into a chaotic display of disunity within the party as it embarked on its first week in power in the House. And it all but guaranteed that even if McCarthy eked out a victory — an outcome that appeared remote, given the stalemate at hand — he would be a diminished speaker beholden to an empowered right flank.

With Democrats holding together behind their leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York won more votes than McCarthy did for speaker on both ballots — 212 to 203 — symbolic victories since Jeffries did not have the support to claim the top job, but an embarrassing metric for the California Republican who has been campaigning for the post for years.

In a room in the basement of the Capitol before the vote, McCarthy privately made the case that the lawmakers opposing him were selfishly disrupting what was supposed to be a day of unity for their own personal gain.

“I earned this job,” McCarthy said.

“Bullshit!” came the response from Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, one of the hard-right Republicans opposing him. (She later told a reporter she did not shout anything during the meeting, but would not say whether she had spoken up.)

“He’s worked hard,” Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, another of the defectors, said of McCarthy’s final plea during the meeting. “In his mind, he has.”

But Norman told reporters he still planned to oppose McCarthy.

Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, emerged from the meeting fuming.

“This meeting wasn’t about trying to inform people about what it takes to get to 218 and ask for what you want,” he told reporters. “This was about a beat down and a simulated unity in the room that doesn’t really exist.”

McCarthy’s allies were equally furious. One incoming committee chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, who is set to lead the Armed Services Committee, declared during the meeting that those who opposed McCarthy should lose their committee assignments, according to people in the room.

McCarthy said before the vote that he was prepared to fight for the speakership on the House floor until the very end, even if it required lawmakers to vote more than once. The failed first vote will likely set off a round of haggling, as McCarthy attempts to win over a critical mass of defectors.

That will not be easy. McCarthy engaged in an excruciating weekslong lobbying campaign in an effort to sew up the votes needed for election, toiling to appease his right flank by embracing their tactics and agenda. He took a hard line against legislation to fund the government and avert a shutdown and called on Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, to resign or face potential impeachment proceedings.

Over the weekend, in a last-ditch effort to sew up the votes, he put forward his most significant offers yet, unveiling a package of rules governing how the House operates, including the so-called Holman rule, which allows lawmakers to use spending bills to defund specific programs and fire federal officials or reduce their pay.

His biggest concession was agreeing to a rule that would allow five lawmakers to call a snap vote at any time to oust the speaker. That had been a top demand of conservatives who had previously used the procedure to drive out then-Speaker John Boehner, the former Ohio representative.

But it was not enough to appease the right flank of his party, who wanted any single lawmaker to be able to force such a vote. After McCarthy announced the concessions, nine more Republicans emerged — most of whom had previously expressed skepticism about McCarthy’s bid for speaker — to criticize his efforts to win them over as insufficient.

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