Nothing Is Working for Kevin McCarthy

The deadline for the Republican leader to cut a deal or quit the speaker’s race is fast approaching.

A photo of Kevin McCarthy
Tom Williams / Getty

At this point in the unending search for a House speaker, Donald Trump’s candidacy is making as much progress as Kevin McCarthy’s.

The former president (and half-hearted 2024 White House applicant) today secured his first vote as the House slogged through its seventh fruitless attempt to elect a leader. The semi-serious effort to elevate Trump, put forward by Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, came at the expense of McCarthy, the Trump-endorsed Republican leader whose bid hasn’t improved in the past six ballots. McCarthy twice more lost 21 Republicans and fell well short of the 218 votes he needs for a majority.

Today’s votes were notable because they were the first since McCarthy reportedly made an offer to his GOP opponents that seemingly encompassed all of their public demands. The two sides have engaged in intense negotiations over the past day, keeping McCarthy’s candidacy alive and offering perhaps a slim hope that he can win over enough of the holdouts to become speaker. But none of that progress was evident in the tallies this afternoon.

McCarthy’s concessions represented the equivalent of giving away the remaining trinkets in an already ransacked store. He had previously agreed to significantly lower the threshold of members needed to force a vote to remove him as speaker, known as a “motion to vacate.” After setting the minimum at five members, McCarthy gave in to the renegades’ demand that a single member could trigger that vote—restoring the standard conservatives had used in 2015 to push Speaker John Boehner out of office. His allies could argue that with so much opposition to McCarthy already, there was little difference between a threshold of five and one.

But according to reports, McCarthy went even further. He agreed to give the House Freedom Caucus designated seats on the powerful Rules Committee, a panel traditionally controlled by the speaker that decides whether and under what parameters legislation can come to a vote on the floor. He also reportedly promised to allow members to demand virtually unlimited amendment votes on spending bills; that change could open up a process that in recent years has been centralized by the leadership, but it could also lead to free-for-alls that drag out debates on bills for days or weeks.

The concessions are sure to frustrate McCarthy supporters who believe the wannabe-speaker had already surrendered too much to his opponents. Representative Ann Wagner of Missouri told me that the threshold for the motion to vacate should be a majority of the Republican conference. Lowering it to five, she said, was akin to the speaker having “a knife over your head every day.” Earlier this week, I asked Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska, a McCarthy supporter who has spoken of partnering with Democrats on a consensus pick for speaker, whether he might desert McCarthy if the GOP leader kept empowering his far-right critics. “It depends on what it is,” Bacon told me. “But I think we went too far as it was already.”

McCarthy was betting that Republicans closest to the political center would stick with him if it meant finally ending a leadership crisis now on its third day. And yet, even this most generous offer to his foes was not enough, and none of the 21 holdouts crossed over to McCarthy’s corner.

McCarthy downplayed today’s first vote before it even began, telling reporters, “Nothing is going to change.” For McCarthy, maintaining the status quo might count as progress. His lingering fear is likely that the bottom will fall out among supporters who are growing tired of the stalemate and are looking to alternatives. Representative Ken Buck of Colorado told CNN that Republicans could nominate McCarthy’s lieutenant, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, by the end of the day if a deal wasn’t struck.

McCarthy’s allies had hoped for another delay to buy time for negotiations, perhaps even through the weekend, but Republicans evidently determined they could not muster the voters to adjourn for a third time in 24 hours. The desire for delay revealed a tactical reversal by McCarthy born out of desperation. At the outset of the voting on Tuesday, his stated goal had been to keep lawmakers on the House floor, casting ballot after ballot until either his far-right opponents or possibly the Democrats got tired enough to let him win. But six consecutive defeats, during which McCarthy lost rather than gained support, disabused him of that idea. Beginning yesterday afternoon, McCarthy tried to adjourn the House to give him more time for backroom negotiations, having apparently realized that his repeated public floggings were doing him no good.

Democrats reluctantly agreed to adjourn after the sixth vote yesterday afternoon, but when McCarthy allies sought to close down the House again in the evening, the Democrats fought back. The vote to adjourn became something of a circus. McCarthy’s critics on the right splintered, with four of them voting alongside Democrats to keep the House in session and one arch-conservative, Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, switching his vote at the last minute. With the outcome in doubt, both parties began shoving late-arriving members—some still wearing their winter coats—to the front of the chamber to cast their votes before the House clerk, Cheryl Johnson, gaveled the motion closed. When Johnson shouted the final tally over the din of the House—the motion to adjourn passed, 216–214—McCarthy and his allies cheered. McCarthy had won his first vote in his bid for speaker, one that staved off his next public abasement for at least another day.

Earlier yesterday, the House took three more failed speaker votes that were nearly identical to the three failed votes it took on Tuesday. The lone differences were that the anti-McCarthy GOP faction nominated a new candidate, Representative Byron Donalds of Florida, and McCarthy lost 21 Republican votes instead of the 20 defections he had suffered previously.  Representative Victoria Spartz of Indiana switched her vote from McCarthy to “present,” telling reporters after that the party needed to have more conversations about the way forward. “What we’re doing on the floor is wasting everyone’s time,” she said.

Spartz’s protest made little difference. The House met again for more time-wasting this afternoon, and the best that McCarthy could accomplish was not losing any more votes. His candidacy survived a seventh losing ballot, and the House moved quickly on to an eighth and then a ninth (during which Gaetz abandoned his support for Trump and voted for Representative Kevin Hern of Oklahoma instead).

Those votes proceeded no better and no worse for McCarthy, who now seems to be one or two more defections away from a final defeat. He is hanging on for now, but the deadline for him to strike a deal or exit the race is fast approaching.