Republican Kevin McCarthy lost a dramatic first vote for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday as hardline conservatives from his own party voted against him, leaving the new Republican majority in turmoil.
In an embarrassing beginning to what could prove to be a brutal showdown between hardliners and most House Republicans, McCarthy 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 had failed to elect a speaker on the first vote.
House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries outran McCarthy in the ballot by 212 to 203 votes, as 19 Republicans opted for a different candidate. McCarthy’s conservative Republican rival, Representative Andy Biggs, garnered 10 votes. A majority of those voting, not a plurality, is needed to determine a speaker.
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 vested in the culture wars and partisan rivalries that have dominated the House – and even more so since fellow Republican Donald Trump’s White House years.
Before the vote, McCarthy tried to persuade the holdouts in at 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.
A protracted speaker election could undermine House Republican hopes of moving forward quickly on priorities including potentially damaging investigations of Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration and family, as well as legislative priorities involving the economy, U.S. energy independence and border security.
A few Republicans opted to vote for party figures not on the ballot, including for conservative leader Representative Jim Jordan and Lee Zeldin, a former House Republican who ran for governor of New York last year.
A standoff would leave the House largely paralyzed and could force lawmakers to consider another candidate. Incoming Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Jordan are seen as possibilities.
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 hard-liners, who want to focus on dealing defeat to Democrats and pushing investigations.
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.
McCarthy, who represents a California district in the House, 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 former President Donald Trump.
Tuesday’s vote marked the first time in 100 years that a nominee has not succeeded to the House speakership on the first ballot. The record number of voting rounds to elect a House speaker is 133 over a two-month period in the 1850s.
The Democrats have 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.