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Explainer: Why can't the House of Representatives elect a speaker?

Twenty hardline Republicans are blocking their party’s candidate, Kevin McCarthy.

A WEEK IS a long time in politics, as the old saying goes.

A week can feel even longer if politicians do the same thing over and over again – hoping for a different outcome, but getting the same result every time.

That’s essentially what’s been happening in the US House of Representatives in Washington DC over the past few days. The House adjourned last night after failing to elect a speaker for a third straight day.

Camille Camdessus, a reporter covering the situation for AFP, set the scene: “There are no windows in the cavernous chamber and time floats between votes in what begins to feel like one long, never-ending day.”

The speaker of the House is the only congressional leadership role outlined in the US Constitution, and is second in the presidential line of succession (after the vice president).

The role was previously held by Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

Republicans took over the House in November’s midterm elections, but the failure to elect a Speaker has left the chamber unable to swear in members or pass legislation.

Republican Kevin McCarthy, a Representative of California, is the party’s favorite to lead the lower chamber of Congress, but he has been blocked by conservative hardliners for 11 votes in a row since the House returned for its new term on Tuesday.

In the last vote yesterday, Hakeem Jeffries got 212 votes and McCarthy got 200 votes – 218 votes are required to be elected.

One Republican, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, voted for former president Donald Trump.

Here’s a breakdown of how all House members-elect have voted to date this week.

Prior to this week, no speakership contest has gone more than nine rounds since the Civil War era.

So, why is this happening?

Republican rebels

The GOP’s majority in the new House is just 222 members, compared to the Democrats’ 213 members – meaning McCarthy can afford only four defections from within his own party.

However, a group of 20 hardline Republicans are blocking his bid to become speaker.

Many of these members are part of the so-called House Freedom Caucus, a staunchly right-wing group, and remain loyal to Trump.

Some of the most vocal McCarthy detractors, including Gaetz, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, say he hasn’t listened to their wishes and isn’t giving conservative voices enough of a platform in the House.

Democrats are voting for their leader, Hakeem Jeffries, as speaker. But without a majority in the Republican-controlled House, they simply don’t have the numbers to elect him.

Behind the scenes, lawmakers from both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are trying to broker a deal – including the possibility of Republicans putting forward a different candidate.

However, McCarthy (57) insists he will win over his detractors – or get enough of them to abstain from voting.

The vast majority of Republicans want to put an end to the revolt, and many had become visibly impatient by the 11th round of voting yesterday.


In a bid to win over some of the House Freedom Caucus and get the necessary 218 votes, McCarthy has made sweeping concessions.

As reported by Bloomberg, McCarthy released a proposal that would allow any five House Republicans to call for the speaker’s removal and allow for more ideological diversity on House panels. Some conservatives have since said they want any single Republican to be able to call to oust the speaker.

McCarthy also offered his right-wing opponents more power over how floor votes are conducted, a vote on term limits and a commitment to stop backing moderates against far-right primary candidates in safe Republican seats.

Some republicans are also calling for specific members to be placed on prime committees which control issues such as tax, trade, health policy and federal spending.

This request has met resistance within the party as some conservative members would get priority over other Republicans with more seniority – something that would likely further split a divided party.

Even if McCarthy is able to secure the votes he needs, he will emerge as a weakened speaker, having given away some powers and constantly under a threat of being voted out by his detractors.

McCarthy’s allies are still hopeful of securing him the gavel, indicating that a deal bringing the so-called “Never Kevins” back into the fold could emerge in the coming hours.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, US President Joe Biden said the failure to elect a speaker to date is “embarrassing” but “not my problem”.

“I just think it’s a little embarrassing that it’s taking so long,” Biden said, noting that “the rest of the world is looking” to see if the US can “get our act together”.

The chamber is due to resume deliberations at midday local time (5pm Irish time).

Contains reporting from © AFP 2023 and Press Association

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