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Democrats break out the popcorn for Republicans’ speaker fight

McCarthy makes history Tuesday, much to his chagrin

Kevin McCarthy and an aide keep track of votes on Tuesday as the California Republican tried to clinch the speakership.
Kevin McCarthy and an aide keep track of votes on Tuesday as the California Republican tried to clinch the speakership. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

They made history Tuesday, down in the House chamber. 

The last time the House failed to elect a speaker on the first ballot, Warren G. Harding was president, Norman Mailer had just been born, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Indian man couldn’t be naturalized because he wasn’t white. 

Then, as now, it was the Republican Party that held a majority but couldn’t swiftly come to a consensus for speaker. But a century ago, the revolt came from the left — the GOP’s progressive wing held out then, while today it’s the party’s far right playing hardball. One hundred years ago, it took nine ballots and some concessions to procedural changes before Frederick H. Gillett won the gavel. 

And so, at 5:27 p.m., after three ballots that saw Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York win more votes for speaker than the nominal GOP leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, the House adjourned until noon Wednesday.

On the third vote, the McCarthy opposition gained a member, Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, who brought the protest vote for Jim Jordan of Ohio up to 20. 

Uncertainty reigned Tuesday. It’s exceedingly rare to see any vote in Washington where the outcome is in doubt beforehand. The last one of consequence might have been in 2017, when Sen. John McCain dramatically gave the GOP’s plan to kill off Obamacare a thumbs-down. Before the votes, members told reporters they didn’t know what to expect. “We’ll see,” said Republican Rep. French Hill of Arkansas. 

Outside the GOP’s 11th-hour caucus meeting Tuesday morning, Georgia Republican Drew Ferguson joked that California Democrat Brad Sherman would jump the aisle to give McCarthy his vote. “I’ll be voting for Kevin from California,” Sherman said, laughing. “Kevin Mullin.”

Sherman then pulled Ferguson aside and asked him, in a whisper, “One ballot, two ballots, what do you think?” 

The chamber filled with members and their children shortly before noon. The 117th Congress adjourned for good minutes before that, meaning every representative was technically a representative-elect until the House picked a speaker, who would then swear them all in. For the past century, this has gone off without a hitch and the speaker has been elected on the first ballot. 

Democrats had a ball watching the Republicans flounder on the floor. Rep. Ted Lieu of California got his popcorn ready, tweeting a photo of himself shortly after noon with a buttery bag and the caption: “About to go to the House floor.”

Voting for Nancy Pelosi’s successor, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, some gave small speeches. “I vote for the current vote leader, Hakeem Jeffries!” Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona said. 

Other Democrats made similar speeches in announcing their votes for Jeffries. Hillary Scholten’s son jumped up to yell Jeffries’ name in stereo with her. The caucus gave Jeffries a standing ovation when he voted for himself; McCarthy’s supporters did the same for him a few minutes later. 

Still, the scene on the floor was rather staid, even soporific, as the House clerk called the roll, one name after another in alphabetical order, repeating their vote after each. That didn’t stop Democrats from claiming anarchy now ruled the House and deploying the “disarray” label, so often used to describe their intraparty squabbles, against the GOP.

“This is what a Republican majority gets us: chaos,” Mike Quigley of Illinois said in a press release. “Democrats are here and ready to do our jobs for the country. Republican disarray is standing in the way.”

If there was any true action, it was in the hallways outside the House chamber. Since the attacks on Jan. 6, 2021, anyone walking onto the floor or into one of the galleries had to first pass through metal detectors. Republicans pledged to remove them, and shortly before noon those leading to the floor were taken away. But the galleries’ metal detectors remained. 

The speeches tapered off during the second ballot, perhaps as fatigue began to set in — or a grim realization that the tedium could go on indefinitely. Before the votes, Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, a moderate firmly backing McCarthy’s bid, said his side was prepared to stick it out “a week, two weeks, whatever it takes to do that.”

Outside the chamber, members’ young children, brought in for the pomp and pageantry and photos, began to melt down. One boy of perhaps 4 slept in his mother’s arms. Aides left coffee and tea receptions to restock supplies of soda.

New members hoping to enjoy the “fun” parts of the day could still count on dinners and receptions, but their biggest photo op would have to wait.

Rep.-elect Robert Garcia was looking forward to his mock swearing-in ceremony, when cameras capture the moment for posterity. He was planning on taking his oath on the Constitution, alongside his naturalization certificate and a picture of his late parents, who died during the pandemic. And the California Democrat, a self-described comic book nerd, had another sentimental document on site for the occasion: a copy of an early Superman on loan from the Library of Congress.

All that must now come later, as the speaker race drags on.

The Senate was a few hundred yards and a world away Tuesday. The new senators were sworn in and the pro forma resolutions easily agreed to by unanimous consent, while reporters milled about outside the chamber, waiting to grab quotes on the standard fare of pending nominations and bills starting to work their way through committee. 

Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who’s resigning to return to academia as the University of Florida’s next president, gave his farewell speech shortly before the House returned again for a third round as the sun began to set over Washington. The children that filled the chamber during the first vote were mostly gone by then. 

After the third failed vote, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma motioned to adjourn until noon Wednesday. On the voice vote, he was met with an overwhelming chorus of “yeas” and what sounded like a lone “nay.”

Justin Papp contributed to this report.

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