The House adjourned, without a Speaker, in late afternoon. Nothing else of consequence can be done until someone wins the gavel.
In the immediate aftermath of the midterm elections, McCarthy was seen as a strong favorite to become Speaker despite a slim GOP majority. The Californian has served as House minority leader for the past four years.
Instead, opposition to McCarthy seemed to harden as the weeks went by. His inability to win the Speakership on the first round of voting is the only failure of its kind in 100 years.
It is possible that McCarthy could win the post. But he is struggling badly and lacks momentum.
Here are the key takeaways from Tuesday’s events.
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McCarthy didn’t come anywhere close to minimizing GOP opposition
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is seen following the third ballot for Speaker during the first day of the 118th session of Congress on Tuesday, January 3, 2023. (Greg Nash)
Before the voting began, the focus was whether McCarthy had any chance of keeping GOP opposition to him to four votes or fewer — the level at which he would have a clear path to the Speakership.
It was always going to be an uphill battle in the first round, since it relied upon the idea that McCarthy could win over at least one of his five most committed GOP opponents — Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Bob Good (Va.), Ralph Norman (S.C.) and Matt Rosendale (Mont.).
He didn’t come anywhere close.
Nineteen Republicans voted for candidates other than McCarthy in the first round, and did so again, coalescing around Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) in round two.
By the third round of voting, the anti-McCarthy Republicans actually increased their ranks by one, as Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) switched his vote to Jordan after backing McCarthy during the first two procedures.
Jordan is not officially a nominee for Speaker, and he himself is backing McCarthy.
There had been signs that the tide was going out on McCarthy in the days before the vote – notably when 14 Republicans, in addition to the five “Never Kevin” members, released a letter branding last-minute concessions from McCarthy “insufficient.”
Still, the final numbers were startling — and bleak for McCarthy.
Democrats stood together amid GOP drama
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is seen during the first day of the 118th session of Congress on Tuesday, January 3, 2023. (Greg Nash)
Democrats had about as good a day as it’s possible to have for a party newly relegated to the minority.
Democrats stood smoothly and firm behind their nominee for Speaker, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). The unanimous Democratic support for Jeffries gave him the plurality of the votes in all three rounds of voting.
There is no realistic chance of Jeffries becoming Speaker in a Republican-majority House.
But Democrats were gleeful at the disarray in Republican ranks. At one point, progressive Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) tweeted a photo of a bucket of popcorn.
“We are breaking the popcorn out in the Dem Caucus till the Republicans get their act together,” Gallego wrote.
Each time the clerk of the House announced the official vote tallies, there were whoops of delight from the Democratic seats and Republican consternation.
Meanwhile, Sen Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted that “this is going to be every day in the House Republican majority…they are going to be an embarrassing public train wreck while they refuse to govern.”
It’s a mystery how the stalemate gets broken
The GOP is in a real bind.
There is no sign at all of opposition to McCarthy weakening. But supporters of the Californian had been adamant before the voting began that they would stick with him until the end.
Unless that dynamic changes, no one can be elected Speaker. Each faction has enough votes to thwart the other.
Attention is inevitably turning to possible other options. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who served as GOP whip in recent years, is one possibility. Another is Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). But neither man has expressed any public willingness to take the role.
Jordan is likely just too fiery and divisive to win, even if he were willing to seriously go forward.
That leaves some even wilder ideas out there. One possibility that had been floated in recent days is former Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who retired at the last election. The theory is that some Democrats might be prepared to join with Republicans to elect Upton, a GOP moderate, as Speaker, in return for some kind of concessions.
But while there is no requirement that the Speaker be a sitting member of the House, such a move would be unprecedented and highly controversial.
For the moment, stalemate reigns.
A dismal start for House Republicans
Members are seen following the third ballot for Speaker on the first day of the 118th session of Congress on Tuesday, January 3, 2023. (Greg Nash)
The failure to elect a Speaker was a debacle for House Republicans — and one that taints their new majority from its first day.
The GOP won its narrow majority — 222-213 seats — on the promise to do something about inflation, the economy, immigration and what conservatives see as the excesses of the Biden administration.
But one reason their majority was not bigger was because Democrats painted the GOP as extreme and dysfunctional.
The chaotic opening of the new Congress has only fed that narrative, as even some Republicans seemed to acknowledge.
“Every day we are delaying, we are letting down those voters,” a plaintive Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, told Fox News as the voting was still going on.
House adjournment before 6 p.m. paints trouble for McCarthy
The House adjourned shortly before 5:30 p.m. ET — and that is likely bad news for McCarthy.
His best, if perilous, route forward was to keep the House in session and hope fatigue and frustration would be his friends, increasing the pressure on his opponents.
Instead, Republicans have all night to ponder whether McCarthy really has a realistic shot at getting to the magic number of 218 votes.
If the answer to that is “no,” there is now time to try to plot out the road ahead and perhaps persuade someone, such as Scalise, to go forward as a compromise candidate.