For the first time in a century, the party in power failed to elect a Speaker of the House during its first two rounds of voting on Tuesday, as Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy struggled to stave off a rebellion from the most hardcore conservatives in his caucus, resulting in an imbroglio with no clear path forward.
The opening session of the 118th Congress began in historic tumult, when nineteen Republicans voted against the California lawmaker, who has been the odds-on favorite to lead the lower chamber. The internecine drama unfolded on the House floor despite McCarthy spending the holiday weekend capitulating to his party’s defectors on multiple fronts. On Sunday, for instance, he released a resolution that changed the House rules to give more leverage to his defiant detractors, allowing just five members the ability to oust the Speaker.
But those concessions came to no avail. In both rounds of voting, the Democratic leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, garnered more votes than his GOP counterpart, leaving open the possibility that the leader of the minority party could win the speakership on a plurality vote if Republicans cannot reach a consensus. There could be many more rounds of voting to come. “This is what it is,” Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania told TIME. “We have procedures to deal with this. We may be on the floor for a long time.”
It was a chaotic opening to the return of divided government in Washington, as House Republicans signaled with their leadership fight that they may not be able to accomplish even some basic responsibilities of the chamber in the coming months.
During the first vote, which took place shortly after 12 p.m., McCarthy lost the nearly 20 votes to a mishmash of candidates, including avowed opponents such as Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Jim Banks of Indiana. While both men were expected to draw the support from the party’s small band of McCarthy detractors, firebrand right-winger Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado drew murmurs throughout the ornate House gallery when she voted for Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a McCarthy supporter. By the second round, which started a few hours later, the defectors consolidated around Jordan, the pugnacious Ohio legislator slated to be the next chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, who clinched 19 votes. Jordan himself voted for McCarthy—and encouraged his own colleagues to do so before the second round.
“We’re working to get Kevin elected,” Jordan told TIME outside the chamber, shortly before the voting began, describing a morning meeting with the House GOP caucus as “fine and, for the most part, productive.” He insisted that he was pushing for colleagues to circle the wagons behind McCarthy. “For 60 days, I’ve been trying to get them to support Kevin, but they’ve got their reasons.”
Those entreaties didn’t seem to work. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida nominated Jordan for Speaker on the second round of voting, right after Jordan nominated McCarthy. “Maybe the right person for the job of Speaker of the House isn’t someone who wants it so bad,” Gaetz proposed to his colleagues.
With Republicans holding only a slim 222-212 majority, McCarthy can only afford four defections. Some of those holdouts could vote “present” if they wanted to remain firm on their McCarthy antagonism but not propel forward a protracted conflict, sources say, but with Jeffries leading the total vote count, that could hand the speakership to a Democrat if the House moves to adopt a resolution to approve the speaker on a plurality line. That is, unless the GOP members can rally around one of their own. It’s a scenario that reflects the fragility of the fractured Republican governing coalition positioned to take the reins of the House.
The Republicans’ intra-party fighting stood in a marked contrast to the Democrats, who unanimously voted for Jeffries, with incoming members bringing their small children onto the House floor to help them cast their votes for Jeffries, who on Tuesday made history as the first ever Black American to receive the most votes for Speaker.
“Democrats are unified and Republicans have become the chaos conference,” Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois told TIME.
Nevertheless, McCarthy’s supporters were steadfast throughout the day that, no matter how many rounds of voting it took, their pick would end up victorious. “There’s challenges right now, but in the end, McCarthy will be the Speaker,” Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan told TIME. “I think ultimately the other side is going to break down and say, ‘We’ve lost, we don’t have the votes, and we have nobody to offer that has any ability to get near the votes.’”
A group of five hard-right lawmakers, most of whom are part of the House Freedom Caucus, have made their antipathy to a McCarthy speakership known for months. McCarthy, in their view, has been too willing to work with Democrats in the past and has contributed to a bloated federal government. In an attempt to unite his side of the aisle, McCarthy released a new rules package that included a five-member “motion to vacate,” which would render him vulnerable to disgruntled Republican legislators. That same measure also contained provisions to effectively gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent ethics watchdog on Capitol Hill that was preparing to investigate members who participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
That was not enough. Boebert on Tuesday morning demanded a single-member motion to vacate and Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania released a statement that McCarthy refused to acquiesce to their demands, thus relinquishing his opportunity to secure the speakership. He did not provide more details beyond that.
After the closed-door meeting this morning with the entire House GOP caucus, some members couldn’t wrap their arms around what concessions the defectors wanted from McCarthy that they had not already gotten. “There’s no clarity,” Thompson said.
Nor was there certainty that the next Speaker could be even decided by day’s end. The standoff could conceivably last for days. A third round of voting started around 4 p.m., but with Republicans still scrambling to resolve the stalemate, there appears to be no end in sight.
-With reporting by Jasmine Aguilera and Mini Racker/Washington