Republican leader Kevin McCarthy failed in marathon voting Tuesday to become House speaker, a historic defeat with no clear way out as House Republicans dug in for a long, messy start for the new Congress.

What You Need To Know

  • Republican leader Kevin McCarthy failed in three rounds of voting to become House speaker Tuesday

  • House Republicans fell into a tangle on the opening day of the new Congress

  • McCarthy is fighting to become speaker as his party takes slim control of the chamber

  • The mood was tense as voting by all 434 House members left McCarthy well short of the majority he needed

Needing 218 votes in the full House, McCarthy got just 203 in two rounds — less even than Democrat Hakeem Jeffries in the GOP-controlled chamber. A third ballot was underway as night fell on the new House GOP majority, tensions rising as all other business came to a halt.

That third ballot ended with another defection from McCarthy, who received 202 votes to Jeffries' 212 and Jordan's 20. Soon after, the House voted to adjourn until Wednesday.

McCarthy had pledged a “battle on the floor” for as long as it took to overcome right-flank fellow Republicans who were refusing to give him their votes. 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 from his fellow party members on the initial vote.

Before the second vote, rival-turned-McCarthy ally, conservative Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who got six votes in the first round, rose to urge his colleagues, even those who backed him as an alternative, to drop their opposition.

“We have to rally around him, come together” Jordan said of McCarthy.

But Rep Matt Gaetz of Florida followed with a vigorous re-endorsement of Jordan. underscoring the chaos within the party.

“I rise to nominate the most talented, hardest working member of the Republican conference, who just gave a speech with more vision that we have ever heard from the alternative,” Gaetz said.

Jordan got 19 votes in the second round.

Smiling through it all, McCarthy huddled briefly with aides then 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 after being nominated by the third-ranking Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik, who said the Californian from gritty Bakersfield “has what it takes” to lead House Republicans.

McCarthy had pledged a "battle on the floor" for as long as it takes to overcome right-flank fellow Republicans who were refusing to give him their votes. 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 from his fellow party members on the initial vote.

McCarthy strode into the chamber, posed for photos, and received a standing ovation from many on his side of the aisle after being nominated by the third-ranking Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik, who said he "has what it takes" to lead House Republicans.

Matt Green, professor and head of the politics department at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., said, “McCarthy did about as badly as he could have” in the first round of voting.

“Every Republican who expressed unhappiness with him voted for someone else, including several who were unexpected no votes,” Green said in an email to Spectrum News.

“The reason for this was twofold: 1) he took a hard line against the dissenters in the morning conference meeting, which angered a lot of them; 2) he did a bad job lobbying lawmakers who were on the fence, particularly those [whose] names come early in the alphabet. Their defections probably encouraged others to join them.”

McCarthy emerged from a contentious closed-door meeting with fellow House Republicans unable to win over detractors and lacking the support needed to become speaker. He vowed to fight to the finish — even if it takes multiple tries in a public spectacle that would underscore divisions in his party and weaken its leadership in the first days of the new Congress.

A core group of conservatives led by the Freedom Caucus and aligned with Donald Trump's MAGA agenda were furious, calling the private 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 refused the group's last-ditch offer 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.

"He eagerly dismissed us," said Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.

"For the last two months, we worked together as a whole conference to develop rules that empower all members, but we're not empowering certain members over others," McCarthy told reporters.

McCarthy said that Monday night he was offered the votes he needed in exchange for members being given certain positions, including committee chairs. He said Gaetz told him he didn't care if the rules were changed to allow a plurality to elect Democratic leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York as speaker.

"Well, that's not about America," McCarthy said. "And I will always fight to put the American people first, not a few individuals that want something for themselves."

Lawmakers convened in a new era of divided government as Democrats relinquish control of the House after midterm election losses. While the Senate remains in Democratic hands, barely, House Republicans are eager to confront President Joe Biden's agenda after two years of a Democratic Party control of both houses of Congress.

Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had gaveled closed the last session moments earlier, moving aside for new Democratic leadership, 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.

But first, House Republicans had to elect a speaker, second in succession to the presidency.

Even with an endorsement from former President Trump, McCarthy fell short.

Democrats enthusiastically nominated Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-.N.Y., who is taking over as party leader, as their choice for speaker — a typically symbolic gesture in the minority but one that took on new importance as Republicans were in disarray.

"A Latino is nominating in this chamber a Black man for our leader for the the first time in American history," said Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, the third-ranking Democrat, in nominating his colleague.

The morning meeting of House Republicans turned raucus ahead what's traditionally a celebratory day as newly elected members arrive to be sworn into office. Families in tow, the members of the new Congress prepare to be sworn into the House and Senate for the start of the two-year legislative session.

A new generation of Trump-aligned Republicans led the opposition to McCarthy. They don't think McCarthy is conservative enough or tough enough to battle Democrats. It's reminiscent of the last time Republicans took back the House majority, after the 2010 midterms, when the tea-party class ushered in a new era of hardball politics, eventually sending Speaker John Boehner to an early retirement.

"Nothing's changed," said Rep. Bob Good, R-Va. "The problem is Kevin McCarthy."

Typically it takes a majority of the House's 435 members, 218 votes, to become the speaker. With just 222 GOP seats, McCarthy could afford to lose only a handful of their votes. A speaker can win with fewer than 218 votes, as Pelosi and Boehner did, if some lawmakers are absent or simply vote present.

But McCarthy has failed to win over a core — and potentially growing — group of right-flank Republicans led by the conservative Freedom Caucus, despite weeks of closed-door meetings and promised changes to the House rules. Nearly a dozen Republicans have publicly raised concerns about McCarthy.

Some of the staunch Republican conservatives challenged McCarthy in the private session. He pushed back, according to a Republican in the room and granted anonymity to discuss the closed-door session.

A sizable but less vocal group of McCarthy supporters started its own campaign, "Only Kevin," as a way to shut down the opposition and pledge their support only to him.

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., a leader of a more pragmatic conservative group, said "frustration was rising" with the minority faction.

"Kevin McCarthy is the right guy to lead this conference, the right guy to be speaker of the House," Johnson said.

A viable challenger to McCarthy had yet to emerge. Biggs, R-Ariz., was running as a conservative option, but was not expected to pull a majority. McCarthy defeated him in the November nominating contest, 188-31.

"Washington's broken," said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who nominated Biggs. "We're the last ones to know. A wise person once told me good process builds good policy builds good politics. We got to return to that."

The second-ranking House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, would be an obvious 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.

Once rivals, McCarthy and Scalise have become a team. Scalise's office rejected as "false" a suggestion Monday by another Republican that Scalise was making calls about the speaker's race.

A speaker's contest last went multiple rounds in 1923.

"This is a lot more important than about one person," said Doug Heye, a former Republican leadership senior aide. "It's about whether Republicans will be able to govern."

Without a speaker, the House cannot fully form — naming its committee chairmen, engaging in floor proceedings and launching investigations of the Biden administration.

The Senate, where Democrats retained a narrow majority in the chamber after last year’s midterm elections, kicked off to a smoother start on Tuesday. 

The current Senate makeup is 47 Democrats, 50 Republicans and three Independents – Sens. Bernie Sanders from Vermont, Angus King from Maine and Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, who switched her party affiliation in mid-December – the former two of which have long caucused with Democrats. Vice President Kamala Harris serves as the tie-breaking vote in the chamber. 

Harris on Tuesday gaveled in the chamber before the chaplain led the Senate in prayer. The vice president was also tasked with laying before the Senate the election of new and returning lawmakers to the 118th Congress, all of whom raised their right hands and took the oath of office on the Senate floor.

“Now's the time to set our sights on the future. As we begin the 118th Congress, this Senate Democratic majority enters the New Year in a stronger position than anyone ever expected,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor after the ceremonies. Schumer was unanimously reelected as leader of the Senate Democrats in early December, with no challenges from other members. 

“We have a lot of challenges ahead, but this majority is ready to meet them. We will be relentless, flexible, and work with the other side to get things done,” Schumer continued, going on to emphasize the numerous bipartisan accomplishments shepherded through Congress over the past several years. “After everything we've accomplished in an evenly divided Senate and a narrowly divided House, there's no reason both sides can't keep working together for the good of our country.” 

“For whoever ends up becoming Speaker of the House, I hope they will find a way to work with us in a productive way this Congress,” Schumer concluded. “Senate Democrats are ready to reach across the island, across the Capitol to accomplish big things that will benefit all Americans.” 

Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was reelected as the leader of the Senate Republicans in November. McConnell did not face nearly as much resistance as McCarthy, his potential House counterpart, and was reelected despite a challenge from fellow Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. 

McConnell on Tuesday became the longest serving Senate leader in U.S. history, surpassing the 16-year record of Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield. McConnell spoke at length of his predecessor, praising Mansfield’s tendency of “empowering his colleagues rather than trying to dominate them.”

“The greatest honor of my career is representing the Commonwealth of Kentucky in this chamber and fighting for my fellow Kentuckians,” McConnell continued Tuesday, adding: “But the second greatest honor is the trust that my fellow Republican senators have placed in me to lead our diverse conference and help them achieve their goals.”

McCarthy's candidacy for speaker should have been an almost sure thing. He led his party into the majority, raising millions of campaign dollars and traveling the country to recruit many of the newer lawmakers to run for office.

Yet McCarthy has been here before, abruptly dropping out of the speaker's race in 2015 when it was clear he did not have support from conservatives to replace Boehner.

One core demand from the holdouts this time is that McCarthy reinstate a rule that allows any single lawmaker to make a "motion to vacate the chair" — in short, to call a vote to remove the speaker from office.

Pelosi eliminated the rule after conservatives used it to threaten Boehner's ouster, but McCarthy agreed to add it back in — but at a higher threshold, requiring at least five lawmakers to sign on to the motion. Conservatives said it was insufficient.