US in crisis amid once-in-a-century political standoff

The US House of Representatives plunged deeper into crisis Thursday as Republican favorite Kevin McCarthy failed again to win the speakership -- entrenching a three-day standoff that has paralyzed the lower chamber of Congress.

McCarthy, a favorite of his party's establishment but a bete noire of the far right, made sweeping concessions overnight to quell a rebellion of around 20 hardliners in his own camp blocking his bid to be the country's top lawmaker.

But his overtures fell on deaf ears as he failed to win over a single opponent in Thursday's votes -- the seventh, eighth and ninth since the chamber opened for a new term with a thin Republican majority.

The last House speakership contest to go to nine voting rounds was a century ago, in 1923. But no contest has been forced to a 10th round in more than 160 years.

Before Thursday's defeats, McCarthy had already been humiliated by failure to secure the gavel six times in a chaotic 48 hours, losing each round to Democrat Hakeem Jeffries, who is also short of the required majority.

"It's my hope that today the House Republicans will stop the bickering, stop the backbiting and stop the backstabbing so we can have the backs of the American people," Jeffries told reporters at the US Capitol on Thursday.

McCarthy, 57, crossed one of his red lines overnight by agreeing to lower the threshold needed to force a vote ousting a speaker from a majority of either party to just one member -- imperiling his chances of a long tenure.

The Californian also reportedly signaled that he is willing to give the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus two or three seats on the powerful Rules Committee, the speaker's mechanism for controlling how floor votes are conducted.

His opponents are also claiming to have extracted a pledge for a vote on limiting lawmakers to three terms, and for a halt to McCarthy-linked political campaigns backing moderates against far right candidates in safe Republican seats.

- Paralysis -

No House business can take place without its presiding officer in place, meaning lawmakers-elect have to continue voting until someone wins a majority -- or force a rule change allowing the candidate with the most votes rather than an outright majority to win.

Until then, the chamber will be unable to swear in members, set up committees, tackle legislation or open any of the investigations Republicans have promised into President Joe Biden.

Three Republican lawmakers due to head national security committees also warned in an open letter Thursday that the House is currently unable to conduct oversight of the Pentagon or intelligence community.

"We cannot let personal politics place the safety and security of the United States at risk," they said.

McCarthy has long dreamed of being speaker but Tuesday and Wednesday were among the most humiliating days in his career as he failed to win a majority in vote after vote, despite Republicans controlling the House.

- 'Taliban 20' -

In the only significant change in the voting, Donald Trump, who is bidding to return to the White House and does not harbor speakership ambitions, secured his first nod, from Florida congressman Matt Gaetz.

McCarthy's failure is being seen as a further marker of Trump's weakening hold over the party, however, as the lawmaker's vote share actually dropped after he received the former president's endorsement on Wednesday.

Texas conservative Chip Roy had indicated that McCarthy's proposed compromises could reduce the ranks of the so-called "Taliban 20" opposing his speakership bid to around 10 detractors.

But in the end, 21 of his 221 Republican colleagues opposed him in every vote Thursday -- the same number as in all three of Wednesday's votes -- and he can only afford to lose four.

In many cases, McCarthy's critics lack specific objections to his policies, but claim instead that they find him untrustworthy, lacking a political philosophy and motivated only by a desire for power.

The top Republican's allies are still hoping that a reduction in opposition to single figures in upcoming voting rounds might increase pressure on the remaining holdouts to follow suit.

But others fear the risky strategy of giving away the store to the most extreme fringe of the party will eventually spark a backlash among the moderates.

ft/sst