WASHINGTON — Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said late Tuesday there's no scenario in which he'll drop his bid to become House speaker despite failing to win multiple rounds of voting, a historic defeat that brought the first day of the new Congress to an abrupt, messy end.
McCarthy promised to fight to the finish — encouraged, he said, by a phone call from Donald Trump — despite a highly uncertain path ahead amid opposition from the chamber's most conservative members. Needing 218 votes in the full House, McCarthy got just 203 votes in two rounds — less even than Democrat Hakeem Jeffries in the GOP-controlled chamber — and fared even worse with in round three, losing 20 Republican colleagues.
“Today, is that the day I wanted to have? No,” McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol after a series of late-night closed-door meetings.
McCarthy said Trump wants him to stay in the race and told him to bring an end to the House Republican disarray and pull the party together.
The former president “wants to see the Republicans united to be able to accomplish the exact things we said we'd do,” McCarthy said.
Asked if he would drop out, McCarthy said, “It’s not going to happen.”
It was a tumultuous start to the new Congress and pointed to difficulties ahead with Republicans now in control of the House.
Tensions flared among the new House majority, and all other business came to a halt. Lawmakers’ families waited around, as what’s normally a festive day descended into chaos, with kids playing in the aisles or squirming in parents’ arms.
Without a speaker, the House cannot fully form — swearing in its members, naming its committee chairmen, engaging in floor proceedings and launching investigations of the Biden administration.
The House agreed to return at noon Wednesday to try again.
But it was not at all clear how the embattled GOP leader could rebound after becoming the first House speaker nominee in 100 years to fail to win the gavel with his party in the majority.
A new generation of conservative Republicans, many aligned with Trump’s Make America Great Again agenda, want to upend business as usual in Washington, and were committed to stopping McCarthy’s rise without concessions to their priorities.
“Kevin McCarthy is not going to be a speaker,” declared Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., one of the holdouts.
As the spectacle of voting dragged on, McCarthy's backers implored the holdouts to fall in line.
“We all came here to get things done,” the second-ranking Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise, said in a speech urging his colleagues to drop their protest.
Railing against Democratic President Joe Biden's agenda, Scalise, himself a possible GOP compromise choice, said, “We can't start fixing those problems until we elect Kevin McCarthy our next speaker.”
But the holdouts forced a third and final round of voting before Republican leaders quickly adjourned.
"The American people are watching, and it's a good thing," said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who nominated fellow conservative Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio as an alternative for speaker.
It was the second time conservatives pushed forward a reluctant Jordan, the McCarthy rival-turned-ally, who earlier had risen to urge his colleagues — even those who backed Jordan — to vote for McCarthy.
“We have to rally around him, come together,” Jordan said.
In all, a core group of 19 Republicans — and then 20 — voted for Jordan.
Smiling through it all, McCarthy appeared intent on simply trying to wear down his colleagues. Earlier, he strode into the chamber, posed for photos and received a standing ovation from many on his side of the aisle. He was nominated by the third-ranking Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who said the Californian from gritty Bakersfield “has what it takes” to lead the House.
But a challenge was quickly raised by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a conservative former leader of the Freedom Caucus, who was nominated by a fellow conservative as speaker.
The mood was tense, at least on the Republican side, as lawmakers rose from their seats, in lengthy in-person voting. Democrats were upbeat as they cast their own historic votes for their leader, Jeffries of New York.
In the first-round tally, McCarthy won 203 votes, with 10 for Biggs and nine for other Republicans. In the second, it was 203 for McCarthy and 19 for Jordan. On the third vote, McCarthy had 202 to Jordan's 20. Democrat Jeffries had the most, 212 votes, but no nominee won a majority.
“The one thing that’s clear is he doesn’t have the votes,” Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., told CNN before joining with those voting for McCarthy. “At some point, as a conference, we’re gonna have to figure out who does.”
The standoff over McCarthy has been building since Republicans appeared on track to win the House majority in the midterm elections in November. A new generation of Trump-aligned Republicans led the opposition to McCarthy, believing he's neither conservative enough nor tough enough to battle Democrats.
While the Senate remains in Democratic hands, barely, House Republicans are eager to confront Biden after two years of the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress.
After a private GOP morning meeting, a core group of conservatives led by the Freedom Caucus and aligned with Trump were furious, calling the meeting a “beat down” by McCarthy allies and remaining steadfast in their opposition to the GOP leader.
“There’s one person who could have changed all this,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a leader of Trump's effort to challenge the 2020 presidential election.
The group said McCarthy had refused the group's last-ditch demand for rules changes in a meeting late Monday at the Capitol.
“If you want to drain the swamp you can't put the biggest alligator in control of the exercise,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
McCarthy’s backers grew angry as well. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., a leader of a more pragmatic conservative group, said “frustration was rising” with the minority faction opposing McCarthy.
As the day began, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gaveled closed the last session, moving aside for new House leadership in her Democratic Party, to a standing ovation from colleagues on her side of the aisle.
The chaplain opened with a prayer seeking to bring the 118th Congress to life.
Democrats enthusiastically nominated Jeffries, who is taking over as party leader, as their choice for speaker — a typically symbolic gesture for the minority but one that took on new importance with Republicans at odds with each other.
“A Latino is nominating in this chamber a Black man for our leader for the first time in American history,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, the third-ranking Democrat, in nominating his colleague.
But there was only negative history for the Republicans. as McCarthy fell short, even with an endorsement from Trump.
Next steps are uncertain. Scalise could be a next choice, a conservative widely liked by his colleagues and seen by some as a hero after surviving a gunshot wound suffered during a congressional baseball game practice in 2017.
A speaker's contest last went multiple rounds in 1923.
This year's Republican deadlock was in stark contrast to the other side of the Capitol, where Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell will officially become the chamber's longest-serving party leader in history. Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York will remain majority leader.
Despite being in the minority in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 51-49 majority, McConnell could prove to be a viable partner as Biden seeks bipartisan victories in the new era of divided government. The two men are expected to appear together Wednesday in the GOP leader's home state of Kentucky to celebrate federal infrastructure investment in a vital bridge that connects Kentucky and Ohio.