The House ended the second day of the new congressional term without a Speaker and with all of its 434 voting members still waiting to be sworn in as Rep. Kevin McCarthy repeatedly failed to secure enough votes to be elected for the top post.
From noon, when the House convened, to 8 p.m., when the chamber voted to adjourn, McCarthy, a California Republican, remained more than 15 votes short of the 218 he needs to become Speaker, drawing increasing frustration, anger, and ridicule from members of both parties, as they all went through the motions of three votes, yet inched no closer to resolving the impasse.
McCarthy loyalists remained adamant that they would not acquiesce to the demands of their far-right colleagues, many of whom are part of the hardline House Freedom Caucus.
“We have a consensus candidate,” Rep.-elect Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin, a freshman legislator who was spotted at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, told TIME. “His name is Kevin McCarthy.”
Other Republicans could barely contain their contempt for their intransigent colleagues. “We cannot let the terrorists win,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas said, lambasting the nearly two dozen McCarthy defectors for creating such a spectacle without a concrete set of goals for what they wanted to get out of negotiations. “Behind closed doors, tell us what you actually want, or shut the f–k up.”
The House Republican conference remained deadlocked for much of Wednesday, with all but 21 members repeatedly backing McCarthy, and the rest casting their votes for Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, with one GOP member voting “present.” The support on Wednesday for Donalds, who joined the House in 2021 and is one of the few Black Republicans in Congress, was a shift for the ultra-conservative holdouts, who had consolidated their support on Tuesday behind Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who backed McCarthy.
Throughout the day, the hardcore conservatives remained defiant in their opposition to the California Republican, showing no signs of bowing down. They notably refused to heed a call from former President Donald Trump to “close the deal” and embrace McCarthy. In fact, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a loyal MAGA acolyte, explicitly bucked Trump on the House floor when she nominated Donalds before the fifth round of voting. “The president needs to tell Kevin McCarthy that, sir, you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw,” she said, with McCarthy smirking from only a few steps away.
After three fruitless rounds of voting, most Republicans seemed eager Wednesday evening to allow negotiations to continue in private.
“People want to spend their time discussing [rather] than being on the floor,” McCarthy said after the House adjourned Wednesday night.
Earlier in the day, President Joe Biden described the situation unfolding at the Capitol as “a little embarrassing” and expressed concern that the impasse was making the U.S. look bad on the global stage.
“How do you think it looks to the rest of the world,” Biden told reporters. “We’re finally coming out of—you know, the first time we’re really getting through the whole issue relating to January 6—things are settling out, and now for the first time in 100 years, we can’t move.”
As the conflict continued to spill out onto public view, some Republicans reached out to Democrats for “preliminary discussions” on reaching a consensus candidate, according to Rep. Dan Bacon, Republican of Nebraska. But on Wednesday afternoon, members of both parties said that such an outcome was not in the immediate offing.
“Not right now,” Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California told TIME. “It’s premature.” Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma also threw cold water on the idea. “That’s really off the table,” he told reporters.
At one point, there were rumors that former Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, a moderate who voted to impeach Trump, would emerge as a surprise Speaker candidate that members of both parties could get behind. The Detroit Free Press reported that Upton was prepared to offer Democrats equal representation on committees. Trump vehemently opposed the move on his social media platform Truth Social, calling Upton “the single WORST person Republicans could have as speaker.”
Though Republicans remained tight-lipped on the specifics of what it might take to end the stalemate, there was some movement Wednesday, as the McCarthy-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund announced it would not spend in open-seat primaries in safe Republican districts. In exchange, the Club for Growth backed McCarthy’s speakership bid.
But Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, one of the McCarthy holdouts, had not had a chance to review the deal and wasn’t fully satisfied. “What about when you have a member-on-member?” he asked, referring to primaries when two lawmakers from the same party end up running against each other after district lines have been redrawn. “I gotta go look and see what the statement is.”
Asked for the particulars of the concessions he was holding out for, he said he needed to hear more about how Republicans would end limitless spending. He would not guarantee that a Speaker would be selected by Thursday.
Over the weekend, McCarthy worked to appease the holdouts by releasing a resolution to change the House rules to make it easier to remove a speaker, allowing five members to call a “motion to vacate,” which would force a vote on ousting him. But the McCarthy detractors complained that the offer did not go far enough. They wanted a single member to be able to make such a motion. Boebert said she and her allies presented McCarthy with their desired committee assignments, which McCarthy rejected as a “wishlist” that was for “personal gain.”
Still, the McCarthy defectors continued to say that the longtime California legislator has been too willing to work with Democrats and increase government spending to levels they deem beyond the pale. McCarthy tried to tamp down that impression by opposing the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package that Congress passed late last month.
It didn’t work. “If you want to drain the swamp, you cannot put the biggest alligator in charge of the exercise,” one of McCarthy’s loudest critics, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, told reporters on Tuesday. “I’m a Florida man and I know of what I speak.”
With McCarthy and his allies standing firm against Gaetz and the rest of the holdouts, the House remained stuck in limbo, as the chamber waited for a speaker to be chosen, members to be sworn in and rules to be adopted. Late Wednesday, it was unclear if any of that would happen soon. The House clerk suggested that legislators should be prepared to work into the weekend.
For Democrats, who remain united behind their leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the apparent Republican dysfunction serves as an omen of what’s to come over the next few years. “They couldn’t get their act together for two months,” Khanna told TIME. “It shows how hard it’s going to be to govern.”
-With reporting by Jasmine Aguilera and Brian Bennett/Washington