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McCarthy opponents unmoved as speaker election drags on

House adjourns until noon Wednesday, when lawmakers will try again

Votes for speaker of the House are tallied after the first round of voting in the House chamber on Tuesday. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., did not secure the 218 votes he needed.
Votes for speaker of the House are tallied after the first round of voting in the House chamber on Tuesday. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., did not secure the 218 votes he needed. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A bloc of Republican opponents Tuesday kept Kevin McCarthy from becoming speaker on three ballots, and the House adjourned to come back on Wednesday and try again to pick a leader.

McCarthy, R-Calif., had told his colleagues as the day began he would not back down, and his supporters said there would be repeated votes. After three votes, the last of which saw McCarthy lose one of his earlier supporters, a motion from McCarthy ally Tom Cole of Oklahoma to adjourn until noon Wednesday was adopted by voice vote.

McCarthy had 19 Republicans vote against him on the first ballot, and none moved his way on the second ballot. One more Republican joined the opposition on the third ballot, bringing the total to 20 and dropping McCarthy’s tally to 202.

Democrats were united on all three votes, with the full 212-member caucus backing New York’s Hakeem Jeffries.

So long as all 434 members-elect are voting for someone by name, McCarthy will need 218 to secure a majority and win. That means he can’t lose more than four Republicans, and his opponents well exceed that number. 

McCarthy spent the hours after the House adjourned behind closed doors strategizing with allies. He emerged around 9:15 p.m. to use the restroom and told reporters that he had no breakthroughs to announce and didn’t plan to make news that night.

“Members are talking … and I think we’ll find a way to get through,” he said. “This is a healthy debate. It might not happen on the day we want it. But it’s going to happen.”

McCarthy vowed to stay in the race when asked if there were any circumstances under which he would consider dropping out.

“No,” he said. “There’s not one.”

The 20 Republicans, including new members, who did not support McCarthy for speaker on at least one of the ballots are:

On the first ballot, 10 of the initial 19 Republican McCarthy opponents voted for Biggs, 6 for Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan and three for other Republicans. 

On the second ballot, all 19 voted for Jordan, with Donalds joining them on the third ballot.

McCarthy said he needs “technically just 11 more votes to win,” since some of his opponents could vote “present” or skip future votes and lower the majority threshold.

Every two absences or “present” votes would lower the threshold from 218 by one. There is already one vacancy after the death of Virginia Democrat A. Donald McEachin. But to win with only 11 opponents swaying his way, McCarthy would need most of the other nine opponents to miss a ballot or vote present.

McCarthy said no one has specifically told him they would vote present, and that his goal is still to get as many Republican votes as he can.

Most of McCarthy’s opponents are associated with the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which is known for pushing former Speaker John A. Boehner into an early retirement in 2015 and opposing McCarthy’s bid to succeed him.

Jordan, a founding member and the first chairman of the Freedom Caucus, was part of that 2015 effort, and he ran unsuccessfully against McCarthy for minority leader four years ago.

He and McCarthy made amends two years later when McCarthy helped elevate Jordan to the only role he coveted more, the top GOP slot on the Judiciary Committee.

Jordan told reporters he still prefers that role and is not interested in being speaker.

“No. I’m being clear: I want to chair Judiciary Committee,” he said. “I like this ability to cross-examine witnesses and get the truth for the country.”

‘I like his tenacity’

Jordan voted for McCarthy on all three ballots and rose to officially nominate McCarthy for the second ballot.

“I like his fight, I like his tenacity,” Jordan said. “We need to rally around him, come together.” 

McCarthy jabbed at his opponents for claiming for weeks they had a secret candidate who the conference could unify around.

“The secret candidate nominated me, so where do they go now?” he told reporters after the second ballot. “This can’t be about that you’re going to leverage somebody for your own personal gain inside Congress. This has to be about the country.”

McCarthy said he planned to remain in the running for speaker, saying he has to “stay with it to be able to win it.”

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise nominated McCarthy on the third ballot. The Louisiana Republican is considered a possible alternative for speaker but wouldn’t mount a direct challenge to McCarthy. And it’s not clear Scalise could meet enough of conservatives’ demands to get 218 votes either.

Gaetz nominated Jordan on the second ballot, calling him “the most talented, hardest-working member.” Roy nominated Jordan on the third ballot.

Demands

McCarthy allies expressed frustration that the members opposing him haven’t been specific about what it would take for them to change their minds.

South Dakota Republican Dusty Johnson, who was recently elected to chair the Republican Main Street Caucus, said McCarthy’s opponents have made a “breathtaking” number of demands but not identified which were key to unlocking their support.

“A lot of members have been asking the holdouts, ‘What’s it gonna take?’ And there’s never a very clear answer,” he said. “And I think that’s why exasperation is growing.”

Perry said in a statement Tuesday morning that McCarthy rejected an offer from the opponents that would have gotten him to 218 votes.

Specifically, he said conservatives asked for “firm commitments” that the House would vote on a balanced budget, a “fair tax” bill that would gut the IRS and replace the income tax system with a national sales tax, border legislation from Texas Republicans and congressional term limits.

They also requested individual earmarks be subject to a two-thirds majority vote before being added to spending bills and that any amendments to cut spending receive guaranteed floor votes.

McCarthy rejected those demands, according to Perry and others.

Committee assignments

McCarthy took particular issue with the Freedom Caucus demanding its members get committee gavels and be seated on prime committees like Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Rules.

He told the Republican Conference in a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning that the Freedom Caucus wanted the Steering Committee, which is in charge of committee assignments, to meet and approve more of its members to prime slots before the speaker’s election, according to Nebraska Repubican Don Bacon.

“They didn’t deny it. McCarthy just said it was too far,” Bacon said. “It crossed a line of good taste.”

McCarthy confirmed to reporters early Tuesday that he rejected a request to provide “certain members with certain positions, certain gavels.” But later Tuesday night he said he was still open to ensuring Freedom Caucus members get better committee assignments and touted his track record of doing so in the past, including pushing for holdout Harris to join Appropriations.

“I think it’s better as a conference, if we’re reflecting, [to] have an entire microcosm of the entire conference on every single committee,” he said.

McCarthy said it would be “difficult” to settle on committee assignments before a decision on the speakership, as Freedom Caucus members have demanded.

“I can’t settle the committee slots because that’s selected not just inside the steering committee, the entire conference decides it,” he said.

Vetting

Norman said he expects to talk to McCarthy “at some point” and that his opposition isn’t personal but about McCarthy’s record as a leader. He reiterated his main demand is that McCarthy lay out a blueprint for a balanced budget.

“If you had a doctor operating on you, you would vet how he’s performed, has he done the surgery,” he said. “That’s all we’re doing to Kevin.”

Norman said he planned to continue voting for Jordan but “there may be some other names” that emerge. He cited the “unchartered territory” Republicans are in given that this is the first speaker’s election to proceed to multiple ballots since 1923.

“I’ll sit here for six more months,” he said when asked how long he would be willing to hold out for the House to elect a speaker.

While McCarthy appears committed to continuing the ballots until his opponents wear down, it’s not clear how long other members will be willing to tolerate voting if no one is budging. 

“Somebody’s going to have to figure out at what point enough is enough,” Texas GOP Rep. Pete Sessions said. 

Speaking after the second ballot, Sessions told reporters that vote “took an entirely different tone” when the McCarthy opponents rallied around Jordan. He said “the dealing is done” and it’s now a matter of when somebody drops out of the running. 

“We’re embroiled in a tug of war,” he said.

Still, McCarthy’s allies largely remained confident he would prevail and suggested they’re willing to take the time needed to make that happen.

“I’m as confident right now that Kevin McCarthy is gonna become speaker of the House as I was a week ago and a month ago,” Johnson said. “I’m not scared about a second or third or fourth day and I don’t think anybody should be.”

Pathway to 218?

Donalds told reporters he changed his vote from McCarthy to Jordan on the third ballot because it’s clear McCarthy doesn’t have the votes, although he’d consider switching his support back if that were to change.

Initially Donalds suggested a pathway for McCarthy to get 218 votes didn’t exist, but he later walked that comment back.

“There is a pathway that does exist. He’s got to find a way to close it,” he said of McCarthy. “And we’ve seen in this town time and time again deals get done.”

Donalds said Republicans need to find that pathway on their own. McCarthy said in November after the conference nominated him for speaker that he didn’t plan to court Democrats to help him win the post.

Work with Democrats?

But given that McCarthy opponents are not moving, Bacon said McCarthy should consider cutting deals with Democrats to get the votes he needs. He said he’s communicated that suggestion to the GOP leader’s team.

That would involve giving Democrats something in exchange, like better committee seat ratios, Bacon said.

“We should have got enough loyalty from our own team,” he said. “But if people don’t know how to be team players and are asking unreasonable demands, we got to work around them. And hopefully they learned a lesson.”

Bacon and others have said if McCarthy drops out at any point they could work with Democrats to nominate a consensus candidate like Michigan Republican Fred Upton, who just retired.

Jeffries said Republicans haven’t reached out to him about a potential consensus candidate but Democrats would be “looking for a willing partner to solve problems for the American people, not save the Republicans from their dysfunction.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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