By Mark Tapscott and Madalina Vasiliu
WASHINGTON—Chaos walked into the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday and made itself home as members of the new Republican majority rejected House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become speaker, but then failed to settle on an alternative candidate.
In the first vote of a tumultuous first day of the 118th Congress, McCarthy, the California Republican who led the party to regain the majority in the November 2022 mid-term election, fell 15 votes short of the 218 he needed to become Speaker of the House.
McCarthy received 203 votes from Republican colleagues, while 212 Democrats voted for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who will serve as House Minority Leader in 2023. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz), the leader of the anti-McCarthy members, received 10 votes. A handful of Republicans voted for candidates who were not nominated.
Incoming House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) cited Saint Paul’s admonition about “finishing the race” as he nominated House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for Speaker of the House.
In his floor speech, Jordan said the House must do three basic things in 2023, including getting the U.S. border with Mexico under control and restoring U.S. military strength, stopping profligate spending by Democrats, and conducting a comprehensive oversight effort of President Joe Biden’s administration.
“We have to do the Oversight and Investigations that needs to be done. This idea that bureaucrats who never put their name on the ballot but think they run the country, who assaulted our constituents’ First Amendment liberties. they need to be held accountable,” Jordan said.
“That has to happen, we need to do it. We need to do it in a way that’s consistent with the Constitution, but we need to do it vigorously and aggressively. That is part of our duty as members of this body,” Jordan continued.
Jordan’s nomination of McCarthy followed the California Republican’s failure to marshall a majority of the 434 Members of the Representatives assembled earlier in the day for the first vote on a new Speaker.
Jeffries was also nominated a second time. Then Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) nominated Jordan, despite the fact the Ohio Republican made clear he continued to support McCarthy. Then the second ballot roll call was called.
All of the 19 Republicans who opposed McCarthy in the first ballot shifted their votes to Jordan, including Biggs. While McCarthy gained the same 203 votes he received in the first balloting, which again left him short of the needed majority of 218. All 212 Democrats again voted for Jeffries.
One of those who voted for Jordan was House Freedom Caucus (HFC) Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who during the second ballot posted on Twitter his determination to fight McCarthy no matter how many ballots are required.
“I stand firmly committed to changing the status quo no matter how many ballots this takes. If McCarthy had fought nearly as hard to defeat the failed, toxic policies of the Biden Administration as he has for himself, he would be Speaker of the House right now,” Perry wrote.
Tension is building on the House floor among Republicans. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told Fox News that “If all they want is somebody other than Kevin, let’s be candid. Steve Scalise is supporting Kevin, Jim Jordan is supporting Kevin. As a matter of fact, every member of the leadership team, including every ranking member without becoming a chairman, is supporting Kevin. So we are in a situation in which the 19 have to explain what they want.”
Democrats were quick to seize on the GOP confusion, with Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) issuing a statement following the first vote observing that “Hunter Thompson was right: ‘When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.’ This is what a Republican majority gets us: chaos.”
“Democrats are here and ready to do our jobs for the country. Republican disarray is standing in the way.”
That vote capped a frenzied two days of back-room bargaining and media posturing by McCarthy and his supporters and a small group of dissident populist conservatives who demanded and got a host of reform concessions, but still voted no on the first ballot.
The bottom line for the dissidents was they just don’t trust McCarthy to be the agent of change they believe must lead the House in what they are determined to make the last two years of President Joe Biden’s tenure in the White House.
“I came to a broken and dysfunctional Congress to change it. Advancing the long-standing pecking order one notch has no prospect of doing that. Many don’t want to change it,” Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) posted on Twitter just before the first vote.
“Kevin McCarthy is not the right candidate to be Speaker. He has perpetuated the Washington status quo that makes this body one of the most unsuccessful and unpopular institutions in the country. This is not about personality or who has ‘earned’ the position, it is about serving the American people. I will not support the status quo,” Bishop continued.
In the final minutes before the new House assembled for the speaker contest, a clearly exasperated and frustrated McCarthy told reporters: “I have the record for the longest speech ever on the floor. I don’t have a problem getting a record for the most votes for Speaker, too.”
He was referring to his more than 90-minute December address to the House in opposition to Biden’s $1.8 trillion omnibus spending bill.
With Republicans expecting early in 2022 to benefit from a giant “Red Wave” that would decisively carry them back into the majority in the November mid-term election, bargaining between McCarthy and members of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), the lead element of the conservative rebellion, began in July.
The HFC, headed by Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), published a lengthy set of proposed changes in the House rules, which determine how legislation is written, debated, and voted on for final passage or defeat.
At the center of those proposals was one to restore the “motion to vacate the chair,” a rule that enabled one member of the House to move for a new vote on the speaker. That motion had been part of the House Rules since its first session in 1789.
But when Democrats regained the House majority in 2018 and elected Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as the speaker, the motion was dropped. That move epitomized a trend that began several decades ago of concentrating power in the speaker and his or her chosen House leaders.
The HFC dissidents demanded the motion be restored as the prerequisite to multiple reforms they claimed were necessary to return the House to its status as the most direct voice of the people.
McCarthy initially opposed restoration of the motion to vacate, but in the final days before Tuesday’s drama, he offered to compromise by requiring at least four co-sponsors to back an initial motion.
He also agreed in the final days before the vote to support restoring the Holman Rule, a legislative procedure under which the House can defund the salary and benefits of a particular civil servant in the executive branch.
The Holman rule was first instituted in the 1870s and was used sparingly thereafter, mainly to remove civil servants who balked at carrying out congressional directions on programs and policy.
The HFC dissidents viewed restoring the Holman Rule as vital to their ability to force change in the Biden administration’s radically liberal management of the federal bureaucracy.
On Monday, as the final hours ticked away, McCarthy had made multiple concessions to the dissidents, but the final negotiations turned bitter as five members of the informally named “Never Kevin” caucus—including Representatives Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Bob Goode of Virginia, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, and Matt Rosendale of Montana—continued to demand more concessions.
By the time the House assembled for the first time as part of the 118th Congress, it appeared there was no more compromising possible.
Rosendale issued a statement saying “Members of the House Freedom Caucus presented Kevin McCarthy with proposed rule changes months before the election. The changes needed in Congress go beyond the Motion to Vacate. Serious reforms are required to restore the House to regular order.
“McCarthy had multiple opportunities to demonstrate leadership abilities and advocate for conservative policies. He had leverage to advance common-sense reforms during the CR, NDAA, & infrastructure legislation. He had early opportunity to address the rules and chose not to do so.
“Now, it’s disingenuous and not reliable to believe that his proposed changes would ever be implemented. We need a Republican Speaker who will challenge the status quo and ensure that every member has a voice.”
With this first failure, the House begins a struggle not previously seen since 1923 when nine ballots were needed to settle on a new speaker. A second ballot will be taken later this afternoon.