Briefing

Kevin McCarthy keeps losing speaker votes. Here's what happens next.

Will the California Republican's dreams of holding the speaker's gavel go down in flames for the second time in his career?

After months of speculation, horse-trading, and acute grievance-airing, outgoing Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) failed to secure a first, second, and third-round vote to become the next speaker of the House on Tuesday, ending 100 years of congressional precedent and throwing his party's narrow majority into chaos as Republicans scramble to address a growing schism from its rightmost flank. Here's everything you need to know:

What's happened so far?

With 19 Republicans voting against him in the first- and second-round ballots, and 20 on the third ballot, McCarthy's hopes for a quick confirmation were dashed Tuesday by a small but influential pocket of far-right members of Congress — many of them members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which helped scuttle his 2015 bid for the speakership — who had spent that morning in a fierce, and occasionally vulgar, back and forth during a contentious closed-door party meeting ahead of the votes. There, McCarthy himself acknowledged the likelihood that he would lose the first round vote, reportedly telling his colleagues, "oh yeah, 20 of you are against me, I know, I've heard it all."

Nevertheless, McCarthy projected confidence that he would ultimately become speaker, at one point laughing out loud at the resurrection of a long-rumored possibility that his chief lieutenant — incoming Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) — might supplant him for the gavel. 

Even after losing his vote, McCarthy appeared conspicuously upbeat:

How did we get here? 

McCarthy's ignominious first-round loss follows a series of significant concessions offered to his most vocal opponents. Of those negotiated allowances, perhaps none has been more contentious — or potentially significant — as his openness to lowering the threshold for a "motion to vacate," the legislative process by which House speakers are removed from their position. Under current House Rules, the majority of the GOP would need to call for a motion to vacate in order to trigger a speaker vote. However, McCarthy had reportedly agreed to lower that threshold to just five people, much to the chagrin of his backers, and to seemingly no avail for his opponents. Many conservatives both in and out of Congress have warned that not backing McCarthy would be — as former Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed — a choice between "him and chaos." Even staunch far-right congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) had cautioned that the party not solidifying behind McCarthy would be a "bad strategy" given their narrow majority. 

But "bad strategy" and potentially overreaching on his political concessions notwithstanding, McCarthy's loss on Tuesday is in part a byproduct of the broader disaffection within a Republican Party still reeling from their underwhelming midterms performance — which has, in part, been blamed on McCarthy himself — and the ongoing transformation of the GOP into a more overtly extremist, MAGA-tinged movement. 

How'd the vote go down? 

Put simply: McCarthy lost this first vote by a historic margin, with 19 Republicans opting to cast their ballots for someone else, rather than back his speaker's bid. While most of the conservative defectors lined up behind Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a number also voted for House Freedom Caucus vice-chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) despite Jordan himself backing McCarthy. And while the 19 defections were fewer than the 31 GOP no-votes McCarthy received when he was nominated by the party for the speakership in mid-November, they were enough to not only sink his hopes for the first ballot, but ultimately place him behind Democrat Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who garnered 212 votes to McCarthy's 203. Notably, although several incoming GOP representatives-elect cast their first ballots against McCarthy, New York Republican George Santos was on hand to vote for the man who has thus far refused to disavow Santos' extensive history of lying and falsifying his personal and professional resume. 

On the second ballot, McCarthy's defectors rallied more solidly around Rep. Jordan, with all 19 of the previous round's anti-McCarthy bloc voting for the Ohio Republican, even after Jordan himself rose to nominate McCarthy that time around. On the third ballot, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) joined the defectors.

So what happens next? 

It's not entirely clear. The House is in largely uncharted waters, with no speaker's vote going past an initial ballot in the past 100 years. The process will continue until a speaker — any speaker — is finally chosen. That could mean McCarthy might be forced to retreat to a backroom in order to continue negotiating with his detractors in order to secure their votes, or it could result in a darkhorse candidate being put forward as a serious alternative, with the party coalescing around them as someone with a viable path to the speaker's gavel. Ahead of Tuesday's vote, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Ne) vowed to "work with like-minded people across the aisle to find someone agreeable for speaker" should the contest result in "gridlock."

Meanwhile, the House is largely paralyzed until a speaker is chosen; without a speaker, it becomes exponentially more difficult — if not impossible — for Congress to pass its mandatory House Rules package by a Jan. 13 deadline. Should it not, this already chaotic legislative session would be thrown into even further turmoil, with staffers at risk of not being paid, and their student loan payment schedules disrupted

Should the speaker's race descend into a total stalemate, Congress does have the option to change the vote rules to give the position to whoever winds with a plurality, rather than the 218 vote threshold. However, with Rep. Jeffries the most likely to benefit from a plurality vote, it's unlikely Republicans will ever willingly hand over the speaker's gavel to the opposing party. 

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