Washington, DC – Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy has made considerable progress in securing a majority to become speaker of the United States House of Representatives but he still fell short of the number of votes he needs to take the gavel.
After three ballots on Friday, McCarthy finally won 216 votes – an uptick from the 201 he received a day earlier – but still one vote short of the number required for victory.
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Despite the loss, Republican lawmaker headed back in for a 15th round of voting as the clock neared midnight on Friday.
About a dozen far-right legislators who had previously opposed McCarthy’s bid had flipped and backed him but a handful of rebel holdouts was enough to thwart the Republican leader’s push for a majority.
For the first time since the voting began on Tuesday, McCarthy outperformed Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, who received 212 votes in the 14th ballot.
Only four speaker elections required more than 12 votes in US history, all of which came in the 1800s.
McCarthy expressed confidence in his chances of clinching the speaker’s gavel earlier on Friday after the first two rounds of voting.
“We made some very good progress. We’ll come back tonight. I believe that time we’ll have the votes to finish this once and for all,” he told reporters.
“It just reminds me of what my father always told me: It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. And now we have to finish for the American public.”
The Republican leader also appeared to find a silver lining in the unprecedented impasse in modern US history. “Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern,” he said.
Without a speaker, the House is effectively non-functioning and new members cannot be sworn in.
Congressman Byron Donalds, a former anti-McCarthy holdout who switched his vote on Friday, said the dissenters had been negotiating in “good faith” and making progress with the Republican leader.
“What we’ve witnessed is monumental and a testament to how government should function in our Constitutional Republic. As we continue negotiations, I’m confident our conference is positioned to get the ball over the finish line,” Donalds wrote on Twitter.
“The Speaker’s Office must work for ‘We The People’, and I believe the concessions we’ve secured achieve this. Republicans are ready to govern and deliver results on behalf of our constituents and the nation.”
Congresswoman Mary Miller, who also defected from the rebel camp, said Republicans were “negotiating a historic conservative victory” to stop what she called “reckless spending” by the administration of President Joe Biden.
Some Democrats had raised concerns that McCarthy may give in to the far-right and agree to block future spending bills, which could bring the US government and economy to a halt.
McCarthy just agreed to a deal with far right insurrectionists that would hold the entire US and global economy hostage to extreme cuts to everything from housing to education, healthcare, Social Security and Medicare.
Hard to overstate how dangerous this is.
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 6, 2023
“We can negotiate on the budget, immigration, housing, tech policy…really anything except whether or not America pays its bills,” Senate Democrat Chris Murphy wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “If the price of McCarthy becoming speaker is a default on American credit, that’s 100 percent on Republicans.”
Despite the gains made on Friday, questions persisted over McCarthy’s ability to lead a thin Republican majority in the House that counts Republican legislators willing to defy and undermine him.
“[McCarthy] wants this; he could have stepped down at any time. They could have put somebody else up there. And so, I don’t think he thinks it’s humiliation. I think he thinks if he gets it, it’s vindication,” John Feehery, a US communications strategist and political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Feehery added that what matters is whether McCarthy would be able to govern effectively or face a similar fiasco with every vote in the House.
“It doesn’t get really any easier after this,” he said.
Before Friday’s votes, hard-right Congressman Matt Gaetz, of Florida, delivered a defiant speech rebuking McCarthy and accusing him of being beholden to special interest groups.
“Mr McCarthy doesn’t have the votes today; he will not have the votes tomorrow, and he will not have the votes next week, next month, next year,” Gaetz said.
“And so one must wonder, madam clerk, is this an exercise in vanity – for someone who has done the maths, taken the counts and is putting this institution through something that absolutely is avoidable?”
McCarthy previously pledged to use the position as speaker to upset the Democratic Party’s agenda and intensify oversight of the Biden administration.
The Republican dissenters had presented numerous demands before agreeing to back McCarthy, including changing House rules to allow any member to bring a no-confidence vote on the speaker.
They also sought 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.
Details of the possible deal that saw most of them change their votes in favour of McCarthy remain unclear.