The House adjourned without a speaker on Tuesday night – the first time since 1923 they had failed to choose a leader after a first round vote.
The start of a new Congress was supposed to be a victory lap for the Republican Party as it took control of the lower chamber following November’s elections. Instead, Mr McCarthy faced a rebellion from within his own ranks and made history for all the wrong reasons.
The California congressman has lost three consecutive votes for Speaker so far, and it’s unclear what his path to victory could be when the House returns on Wednesday to try all over again. They will keep voting until someone wins a majority.
And even if Mr McCarthy finds a way, analysts warn, the turmoil on the floor of the House foreshadows a tumultuous two years of moderate and right-wing Republicans at war with each other.
If the Republican party is unable to effectively run the lower chamber of Congress, this could hamper the ability of the House to carry out some of its core functions like passing spending bills or raising the debt ceiling.
‘Negotiations made him look weak’
Republicans narrowly won control of the House in November, so Mr McCarthy only had a few votes to spare in his bid to become Speaker. That allowed a group of hardline conservatives to band together to oppose his nomination.
The rift was a long time coming, according to Republican observers.
“Kevin McCarthy has not made friends with certain segments of the caucus for a while, he’s made a lot of enemies,” said one Republican lobbyist, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about Tuesday’s vote. “There’s people who don’t like him for political reasons, for personal reasons.”
If not McCarthy for US House Speaker, who else?
Mr McCarthy entered into negotiations with his detractors – who see him as too mainstream and power hungry – offering concessions to try to win their vote. At one point, he reportedly agreed to change the House rules to make it easier to oust a sitting Speaker, handing his opponents an enormous check on his power.
“The fact he was negotiating with the Republicans at all made him look very, very weak to the point of being desperate,” the Republican lobbyist said.
His opponents feel emboldened
The futility of that approach became clear on Tuesday.
In three consecutive votes, Mr McCarthy failed to reach the required 218 vote threshold. Though Republicans hold 222 seats, a bloc of 19 hard-right Republicans had solidified in opposition to him. They oppose Mr McCarthy on ideological and personal grounds, but also see an opportunity to exploit Republicans’ narrow majority to force further concessions from him.
They would “never back down” Representative Bob Good, a Virginia Republican, told reporters on Tuesday.
The punches were still being thrown well after the drama on the floor had finished.
One of the rebels, Matt Gaetz, shot back at a Republican colleague who labelled the right-wing faction as the “Taliban 20”.
“Well, as hurtful and false as that is, I too am prepared for an extended battle that I will ultimately win,” said Mr Gaetz on Twitter.
In one of the day’s most dramatic moments, they even nominated Representative Jim Jordan to challenge him, just moments after Mr Jordan himself nominated Mr McCarthy for Speaker.
Even after Mr Jordan – who is a leading figure in the hard-right Freedom Caucus – urged Republicans to “rally around” Mr McCarthy in the third round of voting, 20 Republicans voted for Mr Jordan, again denying victory to Mr McCarthy.
Meanwhile, Democrats remained unified behind their party’s new leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
A few could not help publicly teasing their Republican counterparts about their party’s difficult afternoon. One congressman, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, tweeted that Democrats were “breaking the popcorn out,” and as evidence included a photo of the snack.
What are McCarthy’s options now?
Political observers in Washington have begun spinning out various theories about how this all could end. Their predictions to the BBC ranged from the feasible (Mr McCarthy holds out and wins, but walks away seriously weakened) to the entirely possible (he bows out and backs his second in command, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana). One suggestion verged on fantasy (five Republicans decide to vote for Mr Jeffries, a Democrat, and deliver him control of the House).
As it stands, Mr McCarthy is “essentially hostage to one side of his party,” said Ruth Bloch Rubin, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who studies partisanship.
Mr McCarthy has pledged not to make any more concessions, but may not have a choice. He could try to win over obstinate lawmakers with plum committee assignments or new leadership roles.
“He’s got to give the people who are against him something to hang their hat on,” said Aaron Cutler, a lobbyist who once worked for former congressman Eric Cantor, another politician who was ousted by conservative opposition. The other Republican lobbyist, however, believed there was “no path to victory, at all, period.”
Members will reconvene for a fourth time on Wednesday, though it’s unclear if the stalemate will break.
“We haven’t heard anything new from McCarthy,” one of the conservative holdouts, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, told reporters. “So I guess we’ll just keep doing this.”