WASHINGTON — A stunning inability to elect a speaker Tuesday highlighted fissures within the Republican Party over strategy and vision, grinding the House to a halt and raising fresh questions about the future of the GOP.
“We have to make a choice today: Are we going to be the party of the radical 2%? Because that’s what it comes down to,” a frustrated Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., said after a caucus meeting. “Kevin McCarthy will be the speaker of the House — and I don’t care if it’s the first ballot or the 97th ballot.”
The standoff was demoralizing for a party that had hoped to use the new majority to show Americans how it would govern — before it asks voters to give the GOP control of the White House and the Senate in the 2024 election. Instead, the displays of dysfunction threaten to further alienate independent and center-right voters, who drifted toward Democrats in 2022, causing the GOP’s underperformance in the midterm elections and its current paper-thin margin.
“I think it’s a problem for the party. It absolutely is,” said former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, home to the rebels. “How is it not a problem for the party if we can’t even decide on who our leader’s going to be?”
Mulvaney, who fought to depose former Speaker John Boehner in 2015, sounded baffled by the group’s tactics, calling it hypocritical to demand a rule that requires a majority of the GOP caucus to pass bills but then refuse to accept that standard to elect a speaker.
“This is completely absurd. It makes no sense to me at all. And I know a little bit of something about challenging speakers of the House,” Mulvaney said.
Mulvaney left the House in 2017 to serve in senior positions in former President Donald Trump’s White House. Trump, who has backed McCarthy, R-Calif., for speaker, had little to say about whether he is staying by him Tuesday: “We’ll see what happens. We’ll see how it all works out,” he told NBC News.
The House adjourned Tuesday after three failed ballots — the first time in a century a speaker election had gone past the first vote — and with no clear path forward.
It foreshadows more divisions in the narrow House majority, which will have to compromise with a Democratic-controlled Senate and President Joe Biden to keep the government functioning and avert economic crises. And it was a bad omen for GOP hopes of unifying a caucus of moderates and far-right members to advance conservative legislation.
“They hurt the team. They’re giving us a black eye in the public,” Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, a moderate Republican in a district Biden carried in 2020, said of the McCarthy critics.
To the rebels, many from deep-red districts, sinking McCarthy is a justified rebuke to a Republican establishment that they feel has long failed to live up to the expectations of their voters.
“In the short run, the objective is to get a better speaker than Kevin McCarthy,” said Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., a leader of the anti-McCarthy push. “In the long run, it’s to deal a blow against a Republican system that’s hostile to conservatives, that has contempt for the Republican base of voters that send us to Washington.”
After two failed ballots, No. 2 GOP Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana pleaded with colleagues to support McCarthy so the House could begin to advance conservative goals like bolstering border security and energy independence.
“We won a majority talking about fixing those problems. But we can’t start fixing those problems until we elect Kevin McCarthy as our next speaker,” he said on the floor.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said the 2022 election results show Americans are “crying out for common sense” and want “a steady hand on the wheel.”
“It’s important that we, as the House majority — and the only part of the legislative branch where the Republicans have control — do demonstrate competence and common sense, demonstrate that we are the adults in the room,” Gallagher said. “And if we spend this week or this month or next two years fighting amongst ourselves, I don’t think it will advance that effort.”
For the third ballot, GOP Rep. Chip Roy of Texas stood up to nominate McCarthy-supporting Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, for speaker.
“This is about the future of the country. This is about the direction of the country,” Roy said, demanding that the caucus find a leader with a plan to stop “spending money we don’t have” and lower the debt. “I don’t want any more empty promises.”
Jordan has said he does not want the job, and he called on his Republican colleagues to unite behind McCarthy to deliver conservative wins.
Some Democrats were mocking their GOP counterparts.
Others said things would only get worse. “This is going to be everyday in the House Republican majority,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said on Twitter. “It’s not just that they won’t be able to govern. It’s that they are going to be an embarrassing public train wreck while they refuse to govern.”
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, said the Republicans who insist on opposing McCarthy have “deeply miscalculated.”
“They’ve calculated that people will see them as these noble freedom fighters fighting for a cause. They can’t seem to say what the cause is. That makes them look pretty f—ing stupid,” he said. “And they are pretty f—ing stupid.”
For Republicans, the standoff sets up a test of wills between a small right-wing faction and a larger group of mainstream GOP lawmakers, who fear that they could be overrun on matters of legislation and governing if they fail to stand up to the rebels now.
But so far, there is little appetite to team up with Democrats to elect a consensus speaker and teach the far right a lesson.
“They’re gonna have to either come our way or we’re gonna have to find another avenue to get these votes,” Bacon said, arguing that the GOP can “go right to the top one or two people in the Democrat party and start making a deal” for a speaker. “If they prove to themselves that they can’t function as part of the team, then we’re going to have to make that decision. But we’re not there.”
Good, when asked about that possibility, said he isn’t worried: “I can’t imagine any Republican would do that.”
Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., one of McCarthy’s opponents, summed up the chaos Tuesday: “It’s more drama than raising seven kids.”