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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Lauren Gambino in Washington

Kevin McCarthy narrowly loses 14th House speaker vote in stunning setback

Kevin McCarthy gestures on the floor of the House.
Kevin McCarthy lost out in the 14th round of voting in the race to be the next speaker of the US House of Representatives late Friday. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

In a stunning setback, Republican Kevin McCarthy failed to persuade the remaining bloc of far-right holdouts in his party to back him for speaker during a late-night vote on Friday – his 14th attempt in four days – leaving the embattled leader one vote shy of clinching the gavel.

Walking onto the chamber floor, McCarthy appeared confident that the vote would be his last. But the Republican’s optimism soured when it became clear that he had once again failed to reach the threshold needed to break the impasse that has paralyzed the start of the new Congress.

In a remarkable effort to salvage his candidacy after the final votes were tallied, McCarthy strode to the back of the chamber to personally lobby two defectors, Republicans Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida, both of whom voted “present”. If one would change their vote and back him for speaker, McCarthy would reach the 217 votes needed to win the vote. Both remained resolute.

Tensions boiled, as a crowd swelled around them. There was finger pointing and yelling, and one lawmaker physically restrained a colleague who appeared to charge at Gaetz.

Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama, is restrained after yelling at Matt Gaetz, who refused to vote for Kevin McCarthy.
Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama, is restrained after yelling at Matt Gaetz, who refused to vote for Kevin McCarthy. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

“Stay civil!” someone shouted as a crestfallen McCarthy returned to his seat.

The dramatic roll call vote gave McCarthy 216 votes, with four Republican defections and two “present” votes that left the party leader one vote short.

“A speaker has not been elected,” the clerk, Cheryl Johnson, announced for a 14th time.

After the failure, Republicans moved quickly to adjourn. But they changed course partway through the vote, breaking into chants of “one more time”. The chamber moved quickly to a 15th vote.

The defeat came after McCarthy had gained much-needed momentum earlier in the day. Fifteen far-right holdouts dropped their opposition and backed him during earlier rounds of voting on Friday, when the embattled Republican gave his support to a proposal that would undermine his own power while giving the far-right flank more influence over the legislative process, including the ability to more easily remove a speaker.

“We made some very good progress,” a freshly confident McCarthy said as he left the floor on Friday afternoon after the House voted to adjourn until later that evening. “We’ll come back tonight. I believe at that time we’ll have the votes to finish this once and for all.”

The delay gives McCarthy and his leadership team more time to ​lobby the ​half-dozen remaining​ holdouts​,​ who could still thwart the Republican’s rise. ​But McCarthy’s allies appeared confident they could persuade just enough of them to help him cross the finish line. It also allows two members of their conference to return to Washington to cast their vote for McCarthy.

On the 12th ballot, McCarthy won the most votes for the first time since the battle over the speakership began on Tuesday, surpassing the Democrats’ choice for speaker, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York. But it was still not enough to cement the top job with the 218 votes traditionally needed to secure the gavel.

“We do not trust Mr McCarthy with power,” Gaetz said earlier in the day, adding that McCarthy’s only options were to face repeated defeat or agree to amend the House rules so much so that he was effectively left to govern in a “straitjacket”.

Kevin McCarthy during the fourth day of elections for speaker of the House.
Kevin McCarthy during the fourth day of elections for speaker of the House. Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Building frustration between the holdouts and the rest of the Republican conference had spilled on to the chamber floor. At one point during the afternoon votes, Congressman Mike Bost, a Republican of Illinois, angrily interjected as Gaetz assailed McCarthy in a nominating speech for his alternative speaker candidate. Shaking a finger at Gaetz, Bost shouted: “This is not going to bring anyone.” The House clerk banged the gavel, ending the exchange while several Republicans temporarily stormed off the floor in protest.

But with an end in sight, the general mood among Republicans had brightened remarkably. Members burst into applause with each new convert. McCarthy, who was subdued by the humiliating string of defeats in recent days, was notably upbeat on Friday, smiling and laughing as the votes progressed.

“We’re at a turning point,” Congressman Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, a leader of the conservative rebellion who voted for McCarthy on Friday, said. Encouraged by the contours of the emerging deal, Perry said he cast his vote in a “good-faith effort” to end the stalemate.

A handful of members were absent for the fourth day of the speakership election, which was not originally supposed to be a voting day for the House. Congressman Wesley Hunt, a Republican from Texas, had to rush home to be with his wife and newly born son. Congressman David Trone, a Democrat from Maryland, missed the 12th vote because he was undergoing surgery. Trone later returned to the Capitol for the 13th vote, receiving a standing ovation from his colleagues as he cast a ballot for Jeffries with his arm in a sling.

Until a speaker is chosen, the House will continue to operate in a suspended state of paralysis, with members unable to be sworn in and business unable to proceed.

Thursday marked the longest succession of failed speaker votes since the Congress of 1859, which went 44 rounds and two months. Only four other speakership elections in American history have required more than 12 ballots.

“Apparently, I like to make history,” McCarthy had told reporters Thursday night, following an 11th vote that produced in effect the same failed result.

But Friday’s voting also happened in the shadow of the second anniversary of the deadly Capitol assault in 2020, which had began with an attempt by ultra-conservative lawmakers loyal to Donald Trump to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election that Joe Biden won. Several of those election-denying lawmakers led the revolt against McCarthy.

After initially condemning the insurrection and Trump’s role fomenting it, McCarthy himself traveled to Mar-a-Lago in early 2021 to repair relations with the former president and his loyalists in anticipation of his speaker bid. Trump emphatically endorsed McCarthy this week, but it has so far failed to change any minds.

The agreement McCarthy presented to ​the rebel camp includes many of the procedural changes that they have been demanding. ​At the heart of the deal is a rule that would allow a single lawmaker to move to “vacate the chair,” effectively triggering a vote to oust the speaker at any point. McCarthy defended the concessions, insisting it would not weaken his authority or undermine his ability to govern.

Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House, talks with Hakeem Jeffries.
Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House, talks with Hakeem Jeffries. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

There is a risk that Republican leadership’s myriad concessions to the party’s hard-right faction could repel more moderate members, who have so far remained loyal to McCarthy. But so far all the momentum has only trended in McCarthy’s favor.

In yet another sign of the shifting tide, the conservative grassroots group FreedomWorks, which had previously mocked McCarthy’s speakership bid, dropped its opposition to his candidacy.

“While details continue to be deliberated on McCarthy’s campaign to 218 votes,” the group’s president said, “today represents a step in the right direction to changing the way business is conducted in Congress.”

Meanwhile, Democrats remained united behind Jeffries as their choice for speaker. He repeatedly won the most votes during the first three days of balloting, but remained short of the majority.

The spectacle foreshadows the difficulties that lie ahead for the Republican party as it aims to reclaim the Senate and the White House in 2024. Already riven by infighting, and constrained by a narrow majority, the party’s new leaders will face many of the same challenges as past Republican speakers, whose tenures were defined by government shutdowns and political brinkmanship.

But McCarthy argued the protracted affair had been instructive for the conference, forcing them to work through their disagreements now to avoid future conflict later.

“It’s new for us, one being in the majority, but being in a tight majority,” McCarthy told reporters after walking off the House floor on Friday. “I think at the end of the day, we’re going to be more effective, more efficient and definitely the government’s going to be more accountable.”

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