House speaker standoff: Vote stretches into 3rd day; Kevin McCarthy offers new concessions to Republican opponents

WASHINGTON– Rising under pressure, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy huddled privately with fellow GOPs in the Capitol on Thursday after two days of not winning enough votes from them to become Speaker of the House. He emerged determined to convince holdouts to end the stalemate that has shattered his new GOP majority.

“We have good discussions and I think everyone wants to find a solution,” McCarthy told reporters just before the House of Representatives was ready to go back into session.

But despite endless talks, signs of concessions and a public spectacle unparalleled in recent political memory, the way forward remained highly uncertain.

What began as a political first, the first time in 100 years that a candidate did not win the gavel on the first ballot, has turned into a bitter Republican Party feud and a potential deepening of the crisis.

McCarthy is under mounting pressure from restless Republicans and Democrats to find the votes he needs or to step aside so the House can fully open up and resume government business. His detractors on the right flank seem intent on waiting him out while it lasts.

The House of Representatives, which constitutes one half of Congress, is essentially at a standstill as McCarthy failed, vote after vote, to win the orator’s gavel in a grueling spectacle for the whole world to see. The votes have yielded almost the same result, 20 conservative holdouts still refuse to back him, leaving him well short of the 218 normally needed to win the hammer.

In fact, McCarthy saw his support slip to 201 when a fellow Republican switched to “simply presence.”

“I think people have to work a little bit more,” McCarthy said Wednesday as they prepared to adjourn for the night. “I don’t think a vote tonight would make a difference. But a vote in the future might do it.”

If the home resumes Thursday midday, it could be a long day. The new Republican majority was not expected to meet on Friday, the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. A prolonged and divisive debate would almost certainly underscore the fragility of American democracy after the attempted insurgency two years ago.

“All who serve in the House of Representatives share a responsibility to bring dignity to this body,” former spokeswoman for California Democrat Nancy Pelosi said in a tweet.

Pelosi also said the Republican’s “cavalier attitude in picking a speaker is frivolous, disrespectful and unworthy of this institution. We must open the house and continue with the work of the people.”

Some Republicans seem increasingly dissatisfied with the way House Republicans have taken command after the midterm elections, only to see the House weigh in on the Speaker’s race in its first few days in the new majority was turned upside down.

Colorado Republican Ken Buck voted for McCarthy but said Wednesday he told him “he needs to figure out how to make a deal to move forward,” or eventually step aside for someone else.

McCarthy has vowed to fight to the end for the speaker’s job in a battle that had roiled the new majority in the early days of the new Congress.

Right-flank Conservatives, led by the Freedom Caucus and allied with former President Donald Trump, appeared emboldened by the standoff — although Trump publicly backed McCarthy,

“This is actually an invigorating day for America,” said Florida Republican Byron Donalds, who has been nominated three times as an alternative by his Conservative peers. “There are many members in the Chamber who want to have serious discussions about how we can wrap this all up and elect a speaker.”

The disorganized start to the new Congress pointed to difficulties with Republicans, who now control the House, much like some previous Republican speakers, including John Boehner, have had trouble leading a rebellious right flank. The result: government closures, standoffs and Boehner’s early retirement.

A new generation of conservative Republicans, many of whom support Trump’s Make America Great Again agenda, are looking to turn business as usual on its head in Washington and have pledged to halt McCarthy’s rise without compromising on their priorities.

But even Trump’s strongest supporters were divided on this issue. Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert, who nominated Donalds for the second time, urged the former president to tell McCarthy, “Sir, you don’t have the votes and it’s time to retire.”

By McCarthy’s own calculations, he’ll have to turn over a dozen or so Republicans who have previously refused their support while he pushes for the job he’s long wanted.

To garner support, McCarthy has already agreed to many of the demands of Freedom Caucus members for rule changes and other concessions that give rank and file members more leverage.

More often than not, the holdouts led by the Freedom Caucus are looking for ways to reduce the powers of the speaker’s office and give ordinary legislators more leverage in the legislative process — with seats on key committees and the ability to draft and amend bills in a freer process. McCarthy acknowledged some changes in a rules pack released over New Year’s weekend, but some didn’t go far enough.

“I’m open to anything that gives me the power to defend my constituents against this godforsaken city,” Texas Republican Chip Roy, a leader with the conservative group, told reporters after walking out of a lengthy meeting late Wednesday.

And a McCarthy-affiliated campaign group, the Conservative Leadership Fund, offered another concession, saying it would no longer spend money voting “in any open primary in safe Republican counties.” Far-right MPs have complained that their favorite House candidates were being treated unfairly as the campaign fund diverted its resources elsewhere.

Pennsylvania Republican Scott Perry, chair of the Freedom Caucus, said the latest round of talks was “productive.”

But McCarthy’s opponents don’t all have the same grievances, and he may never be able to convince some of them. A small core group of Republicans appears unwilling to ever vote for McCarthy.

“I’m willing to vote for this person all night, all week, all month and never,” said Florida Republican Matt Gaetz.

This staunch opposition was reminiscent of McCarthy’s previous bid for the job, when he dropped out of the running for the speaker in 2015 because he failed to convince Conservatives.

“We don’t have an exit strategy,” said South Carolina Republican Ralph Norman.

“There’s nothing he can give me or any of our members that could be a magic pill,” Norman said. “We’re here to screen a speaker. Check the third person in line for the presidency, and that’s a good thing.”

Since 1923 the election of a speaker had not been carried out in several ballots. The longest battle for the gavel began in late 1855 and dragged on for over two months, with 133 ballots cast during debates over slavery in the run-up to the Civil War.

Democrats nominated and renominated their House Speaker, Hakeem Jeffries, for speaker in all six ballots in the first two days. Overall, he repeatedly won the most votes with 212.

If McCarthy could win 213 votes and then convince the remaining naysayers to simply vote present, he would be able to lower the majority threshold required by the rules.

It’s a strategy that previous House Speakers, including Pelosi and Boehner, used when they faced the opposition and won by fewer than 218 votes.

One Republican, Victoria Spartz of Indiana, voted for attendance in Wednesday’s ballot, but in the end it only lowered McCarthy’s total.


AP writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2023 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. House speaker standoff: Vote stretches into 3rd day; Kevin McCarthy offers new concessions to Republican opponents

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