Political chaos continues in the United States on Friday, and after eleven votes in three days the House of Representatives still hasn’t elected a Speaker — a scenario unprecedented since the US Civil War era in the 1800s.
Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has been trying to stitch together a deal to secure enough votes from politicians in his own party to make him Speaker. A group of 20 right-wingers is blocking his accession to the job in a political stunt that has left Republicans in disarray and exposed anew the fragility of American democracy.
The House will be back at it Friday, with more votes on the agenda, and this time it will be against the backdrop of the second anniversary of the 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol. The attack was an unimaginable scene of chaos that shook the country when a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters tried to stop Congress from certifying his election defeat.
McCarthy made no promises of a final vote that would secure him the speaker’s gavel, but glimmers of a deal with at least some of the far-right holdouts who have denied him support were emerging.
“We’ve got some progress going on,” McCarthy said late Thursday, brushing back questions about the lengthy, messy process. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
The agreement McCarthy presented to the holdouts from the conservative Freedom Caucus and others center around rules changes they have been seeking for months. Those changes would shrink the power of the speaker’s office and give rank-and-file lawmakers more influence in drafting and passing legislation.
Even if McCarthy is able to secure the votes he needs, he will emerge as a weakened speaker, having given away some powers and leaving him constantly under threat of being voted out by his detractors. But he would also be potentially emboldened as a survivor of one of the more brutal fights for the gavel in US history.
At the core of the emerging deal is the reinstatement of a House rule that would allow a single lawmaker to make a motion to “vacate the chair,” essentially calling a vote to oust the speaker. McCarthy had resisted allowing it, because it had been held over the head of past Republican Speaker John Boehner, chasing him to early retirement.
The chairman of the chamber’s Freedom Caucus, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, who had been a leader in Trump’s efforts to challenge the 2020 presidential election, appeared receptive to the proposed package, tweeting the adage from Ronald Reagan, “Trust but verify.”
After a long week of failed votes, Thursday’s tally was dismal: McCarthy lost seventh, eighth and then historic ninth, 10th and 11th rounds of voting, surpassing the number from 100 years ago in the last drawn-out fight to choose a speaker.
The California Republican exited the chamber and quipped about the moment: “Apparently, I like to make history.”
Feelings of boredom, desperation and annoyance seemed increasingly evident.
One McCarthy critic, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, cast votes for Trump — a symbolic but pointed sign of the broad divisions over the Republican Party’s future. Then he went further, moving the day from protest toward the absurd in formally nominating the former president to be House speaker on the 11th ballot. Trump got one vote, from Gaetz, drawing laughter.
The longest fight for the gavel started in late 1855 and dragged on for two months, with 133 ballots, during debates over slavery in the run-up to the Civil War.