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Deadlocked House speaker election extends into Capitol riot anniversary

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., puts his hand to his face as he sits among his House colleagues as a fourth round of voting for a new House Speaker begins on the second day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Jan, 4, 2023. (OSV Photo/Evelyn Hockstein. Reuters)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — The election for speaker in the U.S. House of Representatives bled into a historic fourth day when Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the leader of the GOP majority, failed to secure a majority of votes to win the office after 11 rounds of voting from Jan. 3 to 5 — a situation not seen since before the U.S. Civil War. 

Until a new speaker is elected, the House cannot conduct any new business, leaving the congressional chamber effectively paralyzed in the interim. 

With McCarthy unable to meet the required threshold, the House Jan 5 again voted to adjourn until the next day at noon, pushing the extended election for speaker into Jan. 6, the second anniversary of the U.S. Capitol riot.

To take the office, a potential House speaker must win 218 votes, or a simple majority of the House members. But McCarthy, who hopes to oversee what is a slim House majority — just 222 Republicans versus 213 Democrats — failed to meet that threshold when 21 members of his party did not vote for him in the latest round, a number that grew from 19 in earlier rounds.

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., did not vote in the final rounds Jan. 5, after reportedly leaving for a medical appointment. 

The last time at least 10 ballot rounds were needed to elect a House speaker was in 1859, when Republican William Pennington of New Jersey was elected on the 44th round.

Matthew Green, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington who studies Congress and American elections, told OSV News that McCarthy “has a path forward as long as negotiations continue to be productive, as they appear to be.” 

But Green noted McCarthy “still faces a small group of intransigent dissenters, such as Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert, for whom their opposition seems to be personal: They just don’t like McCarthy.” 

“Both sides will be watching today’s votes carefully to see if there is any momentum for or against McCarthy,” he said Jan. 6.

The Democrats’ nominee, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., received more votes than McCarthy in each round as Democrats voted as a block; however, the Democratic House minority leader could only win the speakership in the unlikely scenario of picking up five Republican votes.  

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a Catholic and the former House speaker, told reporters at the Capitol that Republicans have no chance to strike a deal with Democrats to provide McCarthy the remaining votes he needs to clinch the speaker’s role. Democrats have little incentive to cut such a deal: The party controls both the White House and Senate, and lost control of the House by only a slim margin. 

Pelosi also criticized Republicans for dragging out the speaker election while freshmen members had yet to be sworn in, and many were in attendance with their families or young children. 

“Sadly, Republicans’ cavalier attitude in electing a speaker is frivolous, disrespectful and unworthy of this institution,” Pelosi wrote on Twitter.

Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., a Catholic Republican who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, told CNN that McCarthy’s opponents are “trying to put themselves in a position where they have more power than the average member.” 

Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Catholic from Wisconsin, who had nominated McCarthy for the fourth round of voting, acknowledged in his remarks on the House floor that multiple failed rounds of voting in the speaker election “looks messy.”

“But democracy is messy,” said Gallagher, arguing that this was by “design.”

“That’s a feature, not a bug of our system,” Gallagher said, arguing the House should have a debate, but he views McCarthy as the best candidate.

McCarthy’s Republican opponents sought commitments from him on some of their preferred rules or legislation, such as holding a vote on legislation imposing term limits on members of Congress or enacting rules making it easier to oust a House speaker.

One element of an emerging deal between McCarthy and the holdouts is the reinstatement of a House rule that would allow just one lawmaker to make a motion to “vacate the chair,” or a vote to oust the speaker. McCarthy had resisted that effort, which contributed to the retirement of former Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.

Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., a Catholic and a Trump ally who intends to challenge fellow Catholic Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for the Senate in 2024, echoed that sentiment.

“We keep voting ’til someone gets 218 votes,” Mooney said in a video posted to Twitter. “Thus far, I’ve been voting for Kevin McCarthy, but some Republican at some point … needs to get 218 votes.” 

Some Democrats likened the proceedings to a show. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who is Catholic, tweeted a picture of himself Jan. 3 holding a bag of popcorn. 

In remarks to reporters at the White House Jan. 3, President Joe Biden shrugged off the House GOP’s speaker race drama, saying “that’s not my problem.”

Kate Scanlon is a National Reporter for OSV News covering Washington.

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