The first day of the 118th Congress ended with the House in a once-in-a-century void. There was no speaker, after Kevin McCarthy failed to secure a majority of 218 votes on three separate tries. Without a speaker, members-elect haven’t been sworn in. Without being sworn in as members, members-elect can’t vote on the rules to govern themselves. There are no rules. There is no nothing.
Well, nothing except House Republicans at one another’s throats about the humiliating first day of their majority.
McCarthy knew going into the day that he still didn’t have the votes after two months of negotiating (read: pleading) with conservative holdouts. Despite accommodating many of their requests—like making it much easier for a small bloc of members to toss him as speaker if he didn’t hold the conservative line—they weren’t satisfied. The number of holdouts, too, was much larger than the five who had publicly declared themselves members of Team “Never Kevin.” Another bloc of conservatives, led by Freedom Caucus chairman Scott Perry among others, came out against McCarthy on Tuesday morning after his last offer was rejected.
“Kevin McCarthy had an opportunity to be Speaker of the House,” Perry wrote Tuesday morning. “He rejected it.”
McCarthy, unable to reach such an agreement with the holdouts, chose on Tuesday to isolate and shame them into submission.
In a meeting with House Republicans that kicked off the day, McCarthy rallied his members by telling them that he “earned this job. We earned this majority, and goddamnit we are going to win it today.” He was not above calling out specific members for trying to feather their own nests at the expense of their fellow members and Republican voters. He told reporters that on Monday he was told he could only get 218 votes if he gave certain members plum committee spots. He called out Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, specifically, for saying, “I don’t care if we got a plurality, and we elect [Democratic leader] Hakeem Jeffries” as speaker.
Some of McCarthy’s allies tried to paint their failure to elect a speaker on the first ballot, which has not happened since 1923, as just another day in this great democracy of ours. Nothing to see here. “It’s what our typical conference is going to look like,” Kentucky Rep. James Comer said with a smile after the Republicans’ fiery morning meeting. “Free speech, debate, we’re very passionate about the issues, everyone has a strong opinion. And we’re going to work to get to 218.” They love their passion.
Others were letting loose.
The holdouts were “sending out fundraising emails as we speak. Kevin has given them everything that he should have. These people are charlatans at this point,” Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw told reporters. “They’ve calculated that people see them as these noble freedom fighters fighting for a cause. But they can’t seem to say what the cause is. That makes them look pretty fucking stupid.”
“I don’t even really think it’s more rules that people want in place at this point,” Florida Rep. Brian Mast told me. “They just dug a hole that they can’t get out of.” These members had cornered themselves by making public statements about how they couldn’t support McCarthy. No amount of concessions, then, would be enough to overcome their fear of looking like they caved. What they were thinking, in Mast’s paraphrasing, was that “if I don’t go out there and do what I said, at least for one round or two rounds or something like that, then I’m going to look like I have no balls back home.”
Some members are charlatans who just want to raise money and extort McCarthy into giving them committee slots they don’t deserve. Others genuinely do want rules changes that they believe would make it easier to rein in government spending. What makes this difficult for McCarthy, though, is that a core bloc of the 20 rebels just don’t trust the guy. McCarthy has served in leadership with Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, who were often in conflict with the far-right elements of their caucus.
“I will not support anyone for speaker that has played a part in the leadership team over the last 10 years, that has managed the demise of our country, over the last 10 years,” Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale, a staunch holdout, told reporters Tuesday.
McCarthy is viewed, by some of these conservatives, as another product of the same bipartisan system that jams members with trillion-dollar spending bills on Christmas Eve. Yes, he’s been striking a more hard-right tone in recent months as he has tried to win conservative votes. But if the underlying problem is trust, how does McCarthy changing his tune now allay that?
“The problem is Kevin McCarthy,” Virginia Rep. Bob Good said after the Tuesday morning meeting. “So nothing’s changed.”
Hard as it may be to believe, McCarthy’s grand strategy of staring down Earth’s dozen or so most stubborn people on the House floor didn’t go anywhere. McCarthy suffered 19 defections on the first ballot, when he could only lose four. He smiled ahead of the second vote as Gaetz, in a nominating speech for Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, described McCarthy as “someone who has sold shares of himself for more than a decade” in order to become speaker. McCarthy lost 19 Republicans on the second vote, too. On the third and final vote of the day, McCarthy lost 20. The House, leaderless, free of rules, and without official members, oozed away in its primordial state and voted to adjourn. The show would resume at noon the following day.
Maybe House Republicans’ stalemate on the first order of business in the new Congress is all part of their plan. Because once they pick a speaker, they’ll have to attempt to govern.