Washington (AFP) – US lawmakers-elect were locked in crisis talks Wednesday to select a speaker for the House of Representatives after Republican Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the gavel was upended by conservative hardliners.
congressman lost a humiliating series of votes for the job — the first time in a century that no one won the speakership on the first ballot.
A small but growing faction of right-wingers — making up around one-tenth of the House Republicans –- repeatedly voted against McCarthy, leaving him 16 votes short of winning.
The debacle left the chamber with no committees and unable to swear in members or adopt rules for passing legislation.
President Joe Biden called the Republicans’ struggles “embarrassing,” telling reporters the “rest of the world” was watching.
Lawmakers-elect are set to return at noon for a fourth ballot — or to adjourn again to allow more time for dealmaking — with the 20 anti-McCarthy Republicans dug in for a drawn-out fight.
The 57-year-old Republican dragged his party back to a narrow House majority in last year’s midterms after four years in the wilderness.
He has long coveted the opportunity to replace Democrat Nancy Pelosi, something of an icon in US politics who held the gavel in the last Congress.
‘Close the deal’
Tuesday’s vote results sparked frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations as McCarthy’s allies tried to cut a deal with his conservative detractors that could also win the approval of moderates.
He told reporters in he planned to stay in the race and had spoken to Trump, who was still supporting his candidacy.
Trump duly backed the comments, calling Wednesday for an end to the McCarthy blockade and imploring House Republicans to “close the deal and take victory.”
“Republicans, do not turn a great triumph into a giant and embarrassing defeat,” he posted on his Truth Social platform.
No House business can take place without a speaker, meaning the chamber has to continue voting until someone wins a majority.
But there was little sign that any deal had been struck to end the deadlock as members prepared to go back to the floor.
McCarthy, who was bleeding support by the end of business on Tuesday, will be under pressure to quickly reverse that momentum — or drop out.
He would have to turn around 11 of the 20 Republicans who voted against him in the third round and get the other nine to vote “present” instead of backing another candidate.
Should he decide it’s too steep a hill to climb, the two parties are likely to start casting around for a “unity” candidate — a consensus Republican who commits to being as bipartisan as possible.
The Republicans will first look to their own ranks though, where two McCarthy loyalists — incoming House majority leader Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan, a darling of the right — look like the most viable alternatives.
The process has opened a bitter rift within the House Republicans, with centrists referring to the hard-right faction as the “Taliban 20.”
Some of McCarthy’s detractors have taken issue with specific political positions, but many others have just indicated broad distaste for his candidacy.
“Every single Republican in Congress knows that Kevin does not actually believe anything. He has no ideology,” Republican congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida recently wrote of McCarthy.
The former delicatessen owner has already given away the store to his conservative opponents, agreeing to their demands for change in the way the House does business and lowering the threshold of support needed to oust a speaker.
But not one of them has shown signs of wavering.
Late on Tuesday, Gaetz sent a letter to the Architect of the Capitol complaining about McCarthy moving his belongings prematurely into the speaker’s office.
“How long will he remain there before he is considered a squatter?” Gaetz demanded under an official letterhead.