Kevin McCarthy offered to reduce the clout of the U.S. House speaker’s job on Thursday in a failed bid to persuade hardline Republican colleagues to back his candidacy, raising questions about their party’s ability to wield power.
McCarthy has fallen short during seven roll-call votes over three days, paralyzing the chamber and illustrating the outsized influence of a small group of far-right lawmakers in the 435-seat House of Representatives elected in November to a two-year term.
A day after the group rejected a plea by former President Donald Trump to support McCarthy, the California Republican lawmaker offered to weaken the role, a change that political allies cautioned would make doing the job even harder.
In the seventh round on Thursday, McCarthy fell short of the 218 votes needed to secure the speaker post as 19 in his own party voted for rival Republican Byron Donalds, a 20th voted for Trump and a 21st declined to back any candidate.
A weaker-than-expected performance in the midterm elections gave Republicans a slim 222-212 majority in the House. All 212 Democrats again voted for their leader, Hakeem Jeffries.
McCarthy also failed to succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker in six prior votes on Tuesday and Wednesday – the first time in a century that the House had failed to pick a speaker on the first ballot.
A ninth vote would tie the 1923 record and a 10th would be the most since 1859.
McCarthy’s supporters promptly teed up an eighth vote, but his opponents remained unyielding.
“This ends in one of two ways: either Kevin McCarthy withdraws from the race or we construct a straitjacket that he is unwilling to evade,” said Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, who voted for Trump.
As speaker, McCarthy would hold a post that shapes the chamber’s agenda and is second in the line of succession to the presidency behind Vice President Kamala Harris.
He would be empowered to frustrate Democratic President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda and launch investigations of Biden’s family and administration.
McCarthy has been the top House Republican since 2019, but he has been unable to overcome the opposition of some of the chamber’s most conservative members in the speaker election drama.
More than 200 Republicans have backed him each of the seven times this week, with less than 10% of lawmakers in the party against McCarthy. Among other things, the holdouts have said they believe McCarthy would be too willing to cut deals with Democrats who control the Senate and the White House.
The division has prevented House lawmakers from beginning their work including scrutinizing actions by Biden’s administration and helping constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy.
“I’m very worried about it and I’m on the intelligence committee,” said Republican Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a McCarthy supporter who said that, unable to be sworn in until a speaker is chosen, he was unable to participate in classified briefings.
In a late-night bargaining session, McCarthy offered the holdouts greater influence over what legislation comes up for a vote, according to several media outlets. He also offered the ability for any single member to call a vote that could potentially remove him from the post – a step that helped drive at least one prior Republican speaker, John Boehner, into retirement.
Those concessions could potentially help McCarthy win over some of the holdouts but would leave him more vulnerable to the hardliners through the rest of the next two years if he ultimately wins the speakership.
“You have 20 people demanding that 201 surrender to them unconditionally. Well, I am not going to surrender,” Republican Representative Trent Kelly told reporters after a late Wednesday vote rejecting McCarthy.
The inability to agree on a leader also raises questions about whether Republicans will force a government shutdown or risk default later this year in a bid to extract steep spending cuts. Some of the holdouts say they expect McCarthy or any other Republican leader to take that approach.
If McCarthy ultimately fails to unite Republicans, they would have to search for an alternative. Possibilities include No. 2 House Republican Steve Scalise and Representative Jim Jordan, who have both backed McCarthy. Jordan received 20 votes when nominated by the holdouts on Tuesday.
Republicans could also look to Democrats for help, although House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters that they have not reached out. Democratic Representative Ro Khanna told Reuters he and others could support a moderate Republican who would agree to share subpoena power with Democrats and to avoid brinkmanship over government funding and the debt ceiling.