March 25, 2023

Shortly before 4 p.m.yesterday, Kevin McCarthy, the man who desperately wanted to be House speaker, had just suffered two brutally public rejections in a row. For some reason, he was unbowed. “We’re staying until we win,” McCarthy assured a crush of reporters waiting for him outside a bathroom in the Capitol.

Moments earlier, McCarthy had sat and watched as a small but dug-in right-wing faction of his party twice defied his pleas for unity and ensured the 57-year-old Californian’s ignominious place in congressional history. Trying to avoid the first failed speaker vote in 100 years, McCarthy could afford to lose only four Republicans in the crucial party-line tally that opens each new Congress and allows the majority party to govern. McCarthy lost 19. The clerk called the roll again, and once again 19 Republicans voted for someone other than McCarthy. By the hyperpolarized standards of the modern Capitol, this was a rout.

Outside the bathroom, McCarthy explained how the votes would wear down his opposition, how they’d come to see that there was no viable alternative to him. He pointed out that the Republican whom all 19 of his detractors had backed on the second ballot, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, didn’t even want the speaker’s job and was supporting him. “It’ll change eventually,” McCarthy said.

He walked back to the floor and watched as the House rejected him a third time, now with 20 Republicans casting their votes for Jordan. When the chamber adjourned for the day at about 5:30 p.m., McCarthy had already left the floor, his latest bid for speaker thwarted at least momentarily, and perhaps for good.

As the first day of the new congressional term began, McCarthy made a final defiant plea to Republicans inside a private meeting, the culmination of two months’ of negotiating and concessions. The pitch rallied McCarthy’s allies; Representative Ann Wagner of Missouri told me she had never seen him so fiery. But it also “emboldened the other side,” Representative Pete Sessions of Texas told reporters before the votes.

Expected or not, the failed votes amounted to a stunning humiliation for McCarthy, who in recent days had been projecting confidence not only in word but in deed. More than measuring the speaker’s drapes, he had begun using them: McCarthy had already moved into the speaker’s suite of offices in the Capitol. If the House elects someone besides him in the coming days or weeks, he’ll have to move right back out.

But yesterday was a broader embarrassment for a Republican Party that, at least in the House, has squandered most of the chances that voters have given it to govern over the past dozen years. A day of putative triumph had turned decidedly sour—a reality that many GOP lawmakers, particularly McCarthy supporters, made little effort to disguise. “This costs us prestige,” Sessions lamented after the House had adjourned. “The world is watching.”

What the world saw probably left many viewers confused. Democrats, the party that voters had relegated to the minority, were giddy and celebratory. “Let the show begin!” one exclaimed after the House formally convened. Representative Ted Lieu of California posed outside his office with a bag of popcorn. During the three rounds of ballots, Democrats flaunted their unity, casting with gusto their unanimous votes for the incoming minority leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York. “Jeffries, Jeffries, Jeffries!” now-former Speaker Nancy Pelosi exclaimed in the fourth hour of voting.

By that point, the House chamber had lost most of its energy. Lawmakers who had brought their children to witness their swearing-in as members of Congress had sent most of them away; there would be no swearing-in, because that, too, must wait for the election of a speaker. As the third ballot dragged on, a few Republicans seemed on the verge of nodding off, and others grew chippy. “Because I’m interested in governing: Kevin McCarthy,” Representative Bill Huizenga of Michigan snapped when it was his turn to vote again.

McCarthy’s strategy entering the day had been to keep members on the floor, voting again and again, in hopes that his opponents would grow tired, or buckle under pressure from the House Republicans backing him. But when Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a McCarthy ally, made a motion to adjourn before the fourth vote could be taken, no one put up a fight. “We were at an impasse,” Representative Byron Donalds of Florida, whose defection to Jordan after voting twice for McCarthy might have helped prompt the adjournment, told reporters afterward. “Right now it’s clear Kevin doesn’t have the votes. So what are we going to do? Go down the same road we already saw with [the initial] ballots? It doesn’t make sense.”

After the adjournment, members left for meetings that many hoped would break the stalemate in time for the House to reconvene today at noon. McCarthy was still gunning for the gavel, but his position seemed more precarious than ever. Republicans who had stuck with him for three ballots were openly discussing alternatives. Could Jordan, a fighter even more conservative than McCarthy and closer to Donald Trump, win over GOP moderates? Was Representative Steve Scalise, McCarthy’s deputy, an acceptable alternative? And while some Republicans still proclaimed themselves “Only Kevin,” others suggested that they might be open to someone else. “I’ve learned in leadership roles, never say what you’re never going to do,” Wagner told me before the voting began.

If there was a consensus among Republicans last night, it was that few if any of them had any idea whom they could elect as speaker, or when that would happen. “I think everybody goes in their corner and talks,” Representative Ken Buck of Colorado, a conservative who voted for McCarthy, told reporters. I asked him if there was a scenario in which McCarthy, having lost three votes in a row, could still win. “Oh, absolutely,” he replied. Was that the likeliest scenario? Buck answered just as quickly: “No.”

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