WASHINGTON: Hardline Republicans in the US House of Representatives were on track to reject Kevin McCarthy's leadership bid for a ninth time on Thursday (Jan 5) even after he offered to reduce his own authority, sending the chamber deeper into paralysis and raising questions about the party's ability to wield power.
With eight failed attempts to win the job of House speaker since Tuesday, it was not apparent that McCarthy had any path to nail down the majority needed to win the job. In a ninth round of voting, the holdouts quickly amassed enough votes to deny McCarthy the job again.
With its inability to chose a leader, the 435-seat House has been rendered impotent - unable even to formally swear in newly elected members let alone hold hearings, consider legislation or scrutinise Democratic President Joe Biden and his administration.
Republicans won a slim 222-212 majority House majority in the November midterm elections, meaning McCarthy cannot afford to lose the support of more than four Republicans as Democrats united around their own candidate. Not since 1923 had the House failed to elect a speaker on the first ballot. That year, it took nine rounds of voting - a mark matched on Thursday.
McCarthy, a congressman from California who had served as the top House Republican since 2019 and was backed by former President Donald Trump for the post, offered the holdouts a range of concessions that would weaken the speaker's role, which political allies warned would make the job even harder.
That failed to quell the revolt. In two rounds of voting on Thursday, McCarthy won the support of 201 Republicans, short of the 218 votes needed to succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker. Twenty Republicans voted for other candidates, including Trump, and a 21st declined to back any candidate.
Should a 10th vote be needed, the House would tie a record that has stood since 1859 in the turbulent years preceding the US Civil War that ended slavery.
"CONSTRUCT A STRAITJACKET"
McCarthy's opponents remained unyielding, saying that they do not trust him to stick to the scorched-earth tactics they want to use against Biden and the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"This ends in one of two ways: Either Kevin McCarthy withdraws from the race or we construct a straitjacket that he is unwilling to evade," said Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, who voted for Trump for speaker.
As speaker, McCarthy would hold a post that normally shapes the chamber's agenda and is second in the line of succession to the presidency behind Vice President Kamala Harris. He would be empowered to frustrate Biden's legislative agenda and launch investigations into the president's family and administration in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.
More than 200 Republicans have backed McCarthy in each of the votes this week, with less than 10 per cent of lawmakers in the party against him.
"I'm very worried about it and I'm on the intelligence committee," said Republican Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a McCarthy supporter who said that he was unable to participate in classified briefings until a speaker is chosen and he is sworn in.
In a late-night bargaining session, McCarthy offered the holdouts greater influence over what legislation comes up for a vote, according to a source familiar with the talks. He also offered the ability for any single member to call a vote that could potentially remove him from the post - a step that helped drive at least one prior Republican speaker, John Boehner, into retirement.
Those concessions could potentially help McCarthy win over some of the holdouts but would leave him more vulnerable to the hardliners through the rest of the next two years if he ultimately wins the speakership.
That has even alarmed some Democrats, who have largely served as bystanders in the drama of the past three days.
"With every concession, he has to wake up every day wondering if he's still going to have his job," Democratic Representative Richard Neal told reporters.
The inability to agree on a leader also raises questions about whether Republicans will force a government shutdown or risk default later this year in a bid to extract steep spending cuts. Some of the holdouts say they expect McCarthy or any other Republican leader to take that approach.
If McCarthy ultimately fails to unite Republicans, they would have to search for an alternative. Possibilities include No 2 House Republican Steve Scalise and Representative Jim Jordan, who have both backed McCarthy. Jordan received 20 votes when nominated by the holdouts on Tuesday.
Republicans could also look to Democrats for help, although House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters that they have not reached out. Democratic Representative Ro Khanna told Reuters he and others could support a moderate Republican who would agree to share subpoena power with Democrats and to avoid brinkmanship over government funding and the debt ceiling.