WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican leader Kevin McCarthy failed in marathon voting Tuesday to become House speaker, a historic defeat with no clear way out as House Republicans dug in for a long, messy start for the new Congress.
Needing 218 votes in the full House, McCarthy got just 203 in two rounds — less even than Democrat Hakeem Jeffries in the GOP-controlled chamber. A third ballot was underway as night fell on the new House GOP majority, tensions rising as all other business came to a halt.
McCarthy had pledged a "battle on the floor" for as long as it took to overcome right-flank fellow Republicans who were refusing to give him their votes. But it was not at all clear how the embattled GOP leader could rebound after becoming the first House speaker nominee in 100 years to fail to win the gavel with his party in the majority.
Without a speaker, the House cannot fully form — swearing in its members, naming its committee chairmen, engaging in floor proceedings and launching investigations of the Biden administration.
"We all came here to get things done," said the second-ranking Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise, in a rousing speech urging his colleagues to drop their protest.
Railing against President Joe Biden’s agenda, Scalise said, "We can’t start fixing those problems until we elect Kevin McCarthy our next speaker."
It was a chaotic start to the new Congress and pointed to a tangled road ahead with Republicans now in control of the House. A new generation of conservative Republicans, many aligned with Donald Trump’s MAGA agenda, want to upend business as usual in Washington, and were committed to stop McCarthy’s rise without concessions to their priorities.
“The American people are watching, and it’s a good thing,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who nominated fellow conservative Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio as an alternative for speaker.
It was the second time conservatives pushed forward a reluctant Jordan, the McCarthy rival-turned-ally, who earlier had risen to urge his colleagues, even those who backed him, to drop vote for McCarthy.
"We have to rally around him, come together" Jordan said.
Jordan got six votes in the first round, 19 in the second round and was on track to pick up a similar number in the third.
Smiling through it all, McCarthy huddled briefly with aides, then appeared intent on simply trying to wear down his colleagues. Earlier, he strode into the chamber, posed for photos, and received a standing ovation from many on his side of the aisle after being nominated by the third-ranking Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who said the Californian from gritty Bakersfield "has what it takes" to lead House Republicans.
But on the first vote a challenge was quickly raised by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a conservative former leader of the Freedom Caucus, who was nominated by a fellow conservative as speaker. In all, 19 Republicans peeled away, denying McCarthy the majority he needs as they cast votes for Biggs, Jordan or others in protest.
The mood was tense, at least on the Republican side, as lawmakers rose from their seats, in lengthy in-person voting. Democrats were joyous as they cast their own historic votes for their leader, Rep. Jeffries of New York.
In the first-round tally, McCarthy won 203 votes, with 10 for Biggs and nine for other Republicans. In the second, it was 203 for McCarthy and 19 for Jordan. Democrat Jeffries had the most, 212 votes, but no nominee won a majority.
After a raucous private GOP meeting, a core group of conservatives led by the Freedom Caucus and aligned with Trump, were furious, calling the meeting a "beat down" by McCarthy allies and remaining steadfast in their opposition to the GOP leader.
"There's one person who could have changed all this," said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a leader of Trump’s effort to challenge the 2020 presidential election.
The group said McCarthy refused the group’s last-ditch offer for rules changes in a meeting late Monday at the Capitol.
"If you want to drain the swamp you can’t put the biggest alligator in control of the exercise," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
"He eagerly dismissed us," said Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.
Lawmakers convened in a new era of divided government as Democrats relinquish control of the House after midterm election losses. While the Senate remains in Democratic hands, barely, House Republicans are eager to confront President Joe Biden' after two years of Democratic Party control of both houses of Congress.
Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gaveled closed the last session, moving aside for new House leadership in her Democratic Party, to a standing ovation from colleagues on her side of the aisle.
The chaplain opened with a prayer seeking to bring the 118th Congress to life.
But first, House Republicans had to elect a speaker, second in succession to the presidency.
Even with an endorsement from former President Trump, McCarthy fell short.
Democrats enthusiastically nominated Jeffries, D-.N.Y., who is taking over as party leader, as their choice for speaker — a typically symbolic gesture in the minority but one that took on new importance as Republicans were in disarray.
"A Latino is nominating in this chamber a Black man for our leader for the the first time in American history," said Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, the third-ranking Democrat, in nominating his colleague.
A new generation of Trump-aligned Republicans led the opposition to McCarthy. They don’t think he is conservative enough or tough enough to battle Democrats.
Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., a leader of a more pragmatic conservative group, said "frustration was rising" with the minority faction.
A viable challenger to McCarthy had yet to emerge.
The second-ranking House Republican, Scalise of Louisiana, could be a next choice, a conservative widely liked by his colleagues and seen by some as a hero after surviving a gunshot wound suffered during a congressional baseball game practice in 2017.
A speaker’s contest last went multiple rounds in 1923.
This year’s deadlock was in stark contrast to the other side of the Capitol, where Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell will officially become the chamber’s longest-serving party leader in history.
Despite being in the minority in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 51-49 majority, McConnell could prove to be a viable partner as Biden seeks bipartisan victories in the new era of divided government. The two men were expected to appear together later in the week in the GOP leader’s home state of Kentucky to celebrate federal infrastructure investment in a vital bridge that connects Kentucky and Ohio.