15 rounds of voting and four days later, Kevin McCarthy makes it as Speaker of US House of Representatives

By Kenneth Tiven in Washington

Right-wing Republican politicians who supported the January 6 insurrection  against the US Capitol are doing it again. This time revolting while at work by withholding the votes to embarrass Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader they despise, who expected the top position of Speaker of the House when Republicans gained the majority. On Saturday, McCarthy was elected Speaker after 15 rounds of voting.

The House rules required the members to first select a leader, who then swore in as members in the 435-member lower house of the US legislature. Until then, there is no “official” 118th Congress. 

Not this year!

Republicans had enough voters to surpass the 218 needed to elevate McCarthy from the Republican minority leader to the majority leader with the Speaker of the House title. An eighth roll call vote in three days failed Thursday afternoon to push him across the line as a winner. 

The problem with Kevin

Twenty right-wing political dissenters humiliated Kevin McCarthy for being insufficiently radical. A desperate McCarthy apparently offered to allow a single lawmaker to force a snap vote to oust the speaker but it wasn’t enough. The so-called Freedom Caucus wanted McCarthy replaced, but by whom is a mystery. 

This is more than a “we hate Kevin” effort. It is a move for more power and control by right-wing Republicans who believe McCarthy is neither a smart nor tactical politician. Without these 20 votes McCarthy cannot achieve the 218 votes, a majority of the entire  House’s 435 members to replace Democrat Nancy Pelosi. McCarthy did not help his cause while making his final pitch to Republican lawmakers before the initial vote. He  framed those  withholding their vote as unreasonable. He argued that he had “earned” the top post, for his work as minority leader. All this accomplished was to harden the resolve of the 20 dissenters.

American author John Steinbeck summed it up nearly 75 years ago writing in Travels with Charley, that, ”I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless.”

Majority control is critical  because it determines the composition of committees and the management of financial legislation which by law must originate in the House of Representatives. 

Spectacle, not political accomplishment

This is a spectacle the House  and the nation has not experienced in 100 years. Such an ignominious start by a narrow Republican majority suggests an era of dysfunction and disarray. However, this is a positive outcome for the right-wing leadership, which believes dysfunction is a positive step toward reversing the social and political direction of America.

Democrats are chuckling at the chaos the Republicans are creating. 

With some irony, the ex-president tried to intervene. Donald Trump wrote on his social  media, “Some really good conversations took place last night, and it’s now time for all of our GREAT Republican House Members to VOTE FOR KEVIN, CLOSE THE DEAL, TAKE THE VICTORY.” 

Trump’s late and lukewarm endorsement has had scant effect. However, people in and outside the USA are looking at this as an indication of the precarious health of cooperative governance in America. Coming off a fairly dismal mid-term election for Republicans, this petulant behavior is unlikely to help in the 22 months leading to the November 2024 presidential election.

Democrat Nancy Pelosi, just finished as House Speaker, had a similarly slim control, yet kept her caucus together to pass a slate of legislation unseen since 1968’s Great Society and the Depression era New Deal. McCarthy can’t even organize the House, leaving the United States without a functioning Congress for the first time since 1923.

Optimism from the right

“Time is on our side,” said Rep. Bob Good of Virginia. “It’s worth taking a few days, or a few weeks, to get the best possible speaker. The country can’t afford to continue what we’ve always done to get what we’ve always gotten.”

Pessimism for moderates

“There are multiple levels of Dante’s Inferno, and we’re in one of them right now,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew, Republican (and former Democrat) from New Jersey, adding that his party could not continue to go down the same path after two days of embarrassing votes on the House floor with roughly the same results. “We’ve got to get everybody back in the room and start beating the daylights out of each other.”

The traditional Republican Party believed the government had a role to play in levelling the country’s economic and racial playing fields. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the party shifted away from this philosophy and by President Barrack Obama’s 2008 election was in full reactionary response to government doing good things for the bottom third of society. Now, the party has been captured by a reactionary right wing determined to uproot any notion that government in the 21st century has a responsibility to all citizens.

The 20 leading opposition to McCarthy envision themselves as patriots. Along with other Republicans in Congress, they challenged Biden’s election. McCarthy himself voted in 2021 to challenge electors from a number of states and went on to embrace the Trump’s Big Lie about fraudulent voting. Two Republican lawyers whose careers are in jeopardy for their roles in the Big  Lie, plus Ginni Thomas, whose husband is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, doubled down this week in support of  this political debacle, declaring  they are “disgusted with the business-as-usual, self-interested governance in Washington”.