Washington, DC – It was all supposed to be a formality that plays out every two years on January 3.
The newly elected US House of Representatives convenes; the outgoing speaker dismisses the previous chamber; the majority party elects its leader as speaker, and the new speaker swears in members-elect. Then, Congress can get to work.
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Not so this time around. Three days and 11 ballots later, the House has yet to choose a speaker, with top Republican Kevin McCarthy failing to secure a majority again and again amid opposition from far-right members of his own party.
The House adjourned late on Thursday, with a 12th vote anticipated for Friday. The proceedings mark the most votes for House speaker since before the US Civil War, in 1859.
McCarthy received 201 votes in Thursday’s first two rounds of voting, a tally that dropped to 200 in the following three rounds. Each time, he was well short of the 218 he needs, as Republican dissenters largely rallied behind Congressman Byron Donalds.
A second-term Florida representative, Donalds received as many as 19 votes in one of Thursday’s three votes.
Representative Matt Gaetz, a ringleader in the anti-McCarthy camp, cast his vote three times for former President Donald Trump, who – despite the investigations he is facing – could technically serve as speaker. The ex-president has endorsed McCarthy.
All 212 House Democrats voted for Hakeem Jeffries on Thursday, a unified position that top Democratic Congresswoman Katherine Clark said stood in stark contrast with the Republican turmoil.
“Democrats stand united behind our leader because Hakeem Jeffries stands united for the American people,” Clark said on the House floor.
“The historic dysfunction that we are seeing, this intra-party fight that the American people have been drawn into, is imperiling our national security. It will imperil the ability of this government to deliver basic services.”
The Republicans’ thin majority in the chamber has meant that a few GOP dissenters can upset the party’s agenda – and this week’s impasse has spurred questions about the party’s ability to lead the chamber and pass legislation.
Before Thursday’s vote, there were reports of movement towards a resolution. “No deal yet, but a lot of progress,” McCarthy told reporters on Wednesday as Republicans continued to negotiate to find a solution to the deadlock.
The Republican dissenters have put forward numerous demands before they will agree to back McCarthy, including changing House rules to allow any member to bring a no-confidence vote on the speaker.
They also want a bigger say on the House Rules and Appropriations committees, which would allow them to influence the US government budget and help decide which bills can move forward in the chamber.
Republican Congressman Dan Bishop, who has been voting against McCarthy, told MSNBC on Thursday that the party was working for “continued improvements” to the legislative process, which he said has “seen progress”.
Yet, some anti-McCarthy holdouts still appeared confident that they will be able to continue to derail his bid.
“We’ve only increased with votes … in opposition to Kevin McCarthy. We suspect that that trend is likely to continue,” Gaetz told Fox News on Wednesday.
Although the House last failed to elect a speaker on the first ballot in 1923, anti-McCarthy Republicans are portraying the deadlock as a healthy debate that is beneficial to US democracy.
But the House cannot function without a speaker.
So how does this crisis end?
As things stand, the only way to resolve the issue is for a candidate to win a majority. At around 20 votes, Donalds – the GOP rebels’s main nominee – is far from that threshold, and with only two years of US House experience under his belt, he is considered a longshot candidate at best.
McCarthy remains a more realistic option, but he needs to convince enough dissenters to back him. If he fails to do so and withdraws, Republicans may be able to find a consensus candidate.
So far no viable alternative to McCarthy has been put forward, but US commentators have suggested that key Republican Steve Scalise, who is currently in the McCarthy camp, could be an option.
Several other Republican names have been floated, with three-term Oklahoma Representative Kevin Hern among the nominees during the voting rounds. Nominated by Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, he scooped up seven votes in the 10th and 11th round of voting. Early-round nominees included Arizona’s Andy Biggs and Ohio’s Jim Jordan.
The House can also elect someone from outside Congress altogether as speaker. Former Michigan Representative Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party in 2019 before retiring from Congress, has offered to take the job as a “nonpartisan” speaker.
Amash has been a longtime critic of the centralisation of power in the hands of the speaker, calling for more debates and expanding the influence of individual members in the chamber.
If neither party has the votes to elect a speaker of the House, I’d be happy to serve as a nonpartisan speaker who ensures the institution works as it’s supposed to—a place where all ideas are welcome and where outcomes are discovered through the process, not dictated from above.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) November 15, 2022
But Amash’s bid also is most likely to fail. The former congressman lost his status as a rising star in the Republican Party after regularly criticising then-President Trump before leaving Congress.
There have also been suggestions that Democrats and Republicans can join together to choose a moderate speaker. However, in all nine ballots so far, Democratic lawmakers have unanimously backed Jeffries and ruled out helping Republicans.