No end to deadlock: U.S. House adjourns as McCarthy fails on 11th ballot to be Speaker

With pressure mounting, the Speaker's chair of the U.S. House of Representatives sat empty for a third day on Thursday, as Republican leader Kevin McCarthy failed in yet another excruciating ballot to win enough votes from his party to seize the chamber's gavel.

Republican party infighting kept House business stalled for a 3rd full day

A serious looking grey haired man
Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy stands inside the House Chamber during the eighth round of voting for a new Speaker on the third day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Thursday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

For a long and frustrating third day, divided Republicans kept the Speaker's chair of the U.S. House sitting empty Thursday, as party leader Kevin McCarthy failed again and again in an excruciating string of ballots to win enough Republican votes to seize the chamber's gavel. 

By nightfall, despite raucous protests from Democrats, Republicans voted to adjourn and return Friday at noon to try again.

Pressure was building as McCarthy lost seventh, eighth and then historic ninth and 10th rounds of voting, surpassing the number it took the last time this happened, 100 years ago, in a prolonged fight to choose a Speaker in a disputed election. The House then moved onto an 11th round, which McCarthy proceeded to lose again. 

With McCarthy's supporters and foes locked in stalemate, the House could not formally open for the new session of Congress. And feelings of boredom, desperation and annoyance seemed increasingly evident.

One McCarthy critic, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, even cast his votes in two rounds for Donald Trump, a symbolic but pointed sign of the broader 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 in the 11th vote.

As night fell on the eve of the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters trying to overturn Joe Biden's election, Democrats said it was time to get serious.

"This sacred House of Representatives needs a leader," said Democrat Joe Neguse of Colorado, nominating his own party's leader, Hakeem Jeffries, as Speaker.

Deal on the table

McCarthy could be seen talking, one on one, in whispered conversations in the House chamber. 

His emissaries sidled up to holdouts, and gruelling negotiations proceeded in the Republican whip's office down the hall. McCarthy remained determined to persuade Republicans to end the paralyzing debate that has blighted his new majority.

McCarthy's leadership team had presented a core group of the Republican holdouts with a deal on paper in exchange for their support, said one of the opponents, conservative Republican Ralph Norman of South Carolina, as he exited a late-day meeting.

"It's good," Norman said, about changes that would include mandating 72 hours for bills to be posted before votes, though details were scarce.

Lest hopes get ahead of reality, he noted, "This is round one."

What started as a political novelty, the first time since 1923 a nominee had not won the gavel on the first vote, has devolved into a bitter Republican Party feud and deepening potential crisis.

WATCH | Why Republicans are so dug in: 

What's behind the Republican infighting?

9 months ago
Duration 2:59
Chris Galdieri, professor of politics at Saint Anselm College, explains why neither side of the Republican party is willing to back down in the Speaker election, resulting in the ongoing stalemate in the U.S. House.

Democrat continues to win most votes

Jeffries of New York was repeatedly renominated by his fellow Democrats. He has won the most votes on every ballot but also remained short of a majority. McCarthy ran second, gaining no ground.

Republican Party holdouts repeatedly put forward the name of Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, and later added Hern, assuring the stalemate that increasingly carried undercurrents of race and politics would continue.

Donalds, who is Black, is seen as an emerging party leader and Republican counterpoint to the Democratic leader, Jeffries, who is the first Black leader of a major political party in the U.S. Congress and on track himself to become Speaker some day.

Man in a blue jacket and pink tie turns to speak with colleagues in the U.S. House chamber.
Incoming Democratic Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries was nominated by his party for a third straight day. Jeffries has won the plurality of votes on every ballot. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Another Black Republican, newly elected John James, nominated McCarthy on the seventh ballot as nominators became a roll call of the Republicans' rising stars. Brian Mast of Florida, a veteran, appeared to wipe away a tear as he nominated McCarthy on the eighth, and insisted the California Republican was not like past Republican Speakers who are derided by conservatives.

For the ninth ballot, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, Troy Nehls of Texas, made the nomination. For the 10th it was newly elected Juan Ciscomani of Arizona, an immigrant from Mexico whose speech drew chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

McCarthy is under growing pressure from restless Republicans, and Democrats, to find the votes he needs or step aside, so the House can open fully and get on with the business of governing.

The incoming Republican chair of the House's foreign affairs, armed services and intelligence committees all said national security was at risk.

"The Biden administration is going unchecked and there is no oversight of the White House," Republicans Michael McCaul, Mike Rogers and Mike Turner wrote in a joint statement. "We cannot let personal politics place the safety and security of the United States at risk."

WATCH | Votes a sign of potentially difficult years ahead: 

Next few years 'not gonna be fun,' says U.S. political reporter

9 months ago
Duration 5:40
Even if Kevin McCarthy prevails in becoming U.S. House Speaker, the past few days have shown that the narrow majority held by Republicans can easily be disrupted by the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, says Ursula Perano, political reporter for The Daily Beast.

Holdouts seek to shrink Speaker power

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.

The new Republican majority House was not expected to be in session on Friday, which is the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. A prolonged and divisive Speaker's fight would almost certainly underscore the fragility of American democracy after the attempted insurrection two years ago.

To win support, McCarthy has already agreed to many of the demands of Freedom Caucus members, who have been agitating for rules changes and other concessions.

A dark haired man with a blue and yellow striped tie speaks to a surprised looking woman with long blond hair, wearing a pink jacket.
Rep. Matt Gaetz talks with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene on Thursday. Gaetz voted for Donald Trump on the seventh ballot in a symbolic gesture, even though Trump has endorsed McCarthy. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

One of the holdouts' key asks is to reinstate a rule that would allow a single lawmaker to seek a motion to vacate the chair — essentially to call a House vote to oust the Speaker. It's the same rule a previous era of tea party Republicans used to threaten the removal of Republican Speaker John Boehner, and McCarthy has resisted reinstating it.

But those opposing McCarthy do not all have the same complaints, and he may never be able to win over some of them. A small core group of Republicans appear unwilling to ever vote for McCarthy.

"I'm ready to vote all night, all week, all month and never for that person," said Gaetz.

Ballots Thursday kept producing almost the same outcome, 20 conservative holdouts still refusing to support McCarthy and leaving him far short of the 218 typically needed to win the gavel.

In fact, McCarthy saw his support slipping to 201, as one fellow Republican switched to vote simply present, and later to 200. With just a 222-seat Republican majority, he could not spare votes.