Two years after a mob stormed the halls of Congress in a violent push to subvert the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, Kevin McCarthy walked into the Capitol on Friday morning pledging “progress” with his repeatedly failing attempts to secure enough votes to become speaker of the House.
“We’re going to make progress,” he told reporters. “We’re going to shock you.”
Fifteen Republican members who previously did not support the House Republican leader’s attempts to be named House Speaker flipped their vote on 6 January, but the 12th and 13th rounds of votes fell just short of the number Mr McCarthy needs to secure the gavel.
Republicans voted to adjourn until 10pm ET on Friday during a fourth straight day of attempts to elect a speaker, the longest contest in 164 years, with Mr McCarthy falling short in a historic streak of failed votes.
His ongoing defeat – even as he offered hardline members even more concessions to win the speaker’s gavel, and as Donald Trump urged lawmakers to rally behind him – has frustrated members and signaled incoming House Republicans’ chaotic majority in the newly formed Congress.
Signs of a preliminary deal for his election emerged on Thursday evening, but even Mr McCarthy’s supporters were sceptical that it would be enough to push him over the top, paralysing the chamber and drawing increasingly impatient statements from lawmakers.
“We are making progress,” newly elected Congressman Keith Self said from the House floor as he switched his vote to Mr McCarthy on Friday.
“It has become clear to me that a couple of individuals are simply obstructionists, more interested in self-promotion than restoring the Republic,” he said in a statement explaining his vote.
Republican Rep Victoriz Spartz, who had previously only voted “present” during the speaker votes, also cast her vote for Mr McCarthy during the 12th round.
Two House Republicans are currently absent; Wesley Hunt is out to tend to his wife and baby, and Ken Buck is in surgery. Both are expected to return to the Capitol on Friday night.
But Democratic Rep David Trone made a surprise return to the House on Friday after undergoing shoulder surgery to cast his vote for Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, raising the threshold for Mr McCarthy’s election.
There are at least six Republican holdouts – including far-right members Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert – who have refused to back the House Republican leader.
The contours of a forthcoming deal to secure the California congressman’s role as House Speaker – a role formerly held by Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who recently concluded one of the longest speaker tenures in US history – began to emerge after a series of votes failed to yield any speaker at all in the lower chamber of Congress, continuing a fragile spectacle of American democracy in the grim shadow of the January 6 insurrection.
“Mr McCarthy does not have the votes today, he will not have the votes tomorrow, next week or next year,” Mr Gaetz said from the House floor on Friday as he offered up Jim Jordan as a nominee.
He suggested Mr McCarthy was pursuing an “exercise in vanity” and said there is “insufficient trust” among GOP lawmakers in the House Republican leader.
An agreement reportedly under consideration would concede to far-right holdouts among the so-called Freedom Caucus and others around rules changes that would shrink the power of the speaker’s office and give rank-and-file members more influence in drafting and passing legislation.
If Mr McCarthy does successfully pull in more votes under such concessions to become the new speaker of the House of Representatives, he could emerge as a weakened figure under threat of being undermined from his in-party critics.
“I hear overwhelmingly on the phones and email, ‘What the hell are these members doing?’” Republican US Rep Don Bacon told The Independent on Friday.
“Most people are calling saying ‘get your act together, get to work.’ The Republicans need to show that they can govern,” he said.
Incremental progress on Friday signalled some “hope” that seemingly intractable members who do not support Mr McCarthy could swap their votes in future rounds, Rep Nancy Mace told The Independent.
Democrats, meanwhile, remained unified behind Hakeem Jeffries.
The New York congressman saw a historic streak of votes beating out other nominees on every tally up until Friday afternoon, but not enough to clinch a majority; he would need support from Republican members, uniformly opposed to nominating a Democratic member.
A resolution to the standoff with the so-called “Taliban 20” in Mr McCarthy’s far-right flank could also result in agreements for more seats in the House Rules Committee and attempts to impose federal term limits on the number of terms lawmakers can serve in Congress.
Mr Jeffries’s caucus has thus far resisted any attempts by Mr McCarthy’s team to have members vote “present”, which would lower the threshhold needed for his victory. They have also yet to unite behind any centrist Republican candidate who could win their support over Mr McCarthy, a move discussed by Rep Fred Upton and others earlier this week as a possible means of freezing out conservatives.
The holdouts, for their part, have predicted other defections from Mr McCarthy’s camp or signalled that losing or changing votes could be imminent as the House entered a fourth day of voting for its leadership.
“I think you’re going to continue to see attrition from Kevin McCarthy, from the votes that he’s receiving,” Congressman Bob Good told The Independent on Thursday. He has backed Jim Jordan for House Speaker.
“And so they are ready, icreasingly ready, I believe, to look at other candidates as that reality sets in,” he said.
Additional reporting by John Bowden and Eric Garcia