Abuja (Sundiata Post) – The California congressman needed a simple majority to be elected as Washington’s top legislator, who presides over House business and is second in line to the presidency.
But divided Republicans failed to elect a speaker in the first round of voting, for the first time in 100 years, after a nailbiting ballot that earned blanket coverage across US television networks.
McCarthy needed 218 votes in the lower chamber, which flipped to a narrow 222-212 Republican majority after last year’s midterm elections.
But the 57-year-old fell short — having failed to bring party rebels, who include several high-profile Donald Trump allies, into line.
His performance was so weak that he lost out by 203 votes to 212 to the Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries in round one — although there was very little doubt a Republican would ultimately claim the speaker’s gavel.
The process now goes to a second round, expected later on Tuesday, where hardliners can put up their own candidate.
McCarthy has long coveted the role of speaker, having withdrawn from the race in 2015 amid a number of blunders and a right-wing revolt.
This time he was once again tripped up by far-right rebels, despite bowing to their calls to push aggressive investigations of Democrats including President Joe Biden after taking over the House.
Two of his most outspoken detractors, flamethrower Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz had dueling columns opposing his bid in the conservative Daily Caller before Christmas.
“Every single Republican in Congress knows that Kevin does not actually believe anything. He has no ideology,” Gaetz wrote.
Greene, who is believed to have been offered considerable influence in return for her backing, retorted that McCarthy’s opponents were lying “when they claim a consensus House Speaker candidate will emerge.”
– Cloak and dagger –
The last time it took more than one round of voting to pick a speaker at the start of a new Congress was a century ago, in 1923.
No credible Republican alternative for round two had yet been floated publicly, although the most obvious would be House Whip Steve Scalise, a loyal McCarthy deputy who has nevertheless been clear that he has ambitions of his own.
The party’s right fringe is likely to see Scalise as more of the same, however, and plans to put up its own champion.
One roadblock to his anointment was the perception by some on his party’s far right that he is insufficiently loyal to Trump, the Republican former president and 2024 election candidate.
The California Republican has tried to ingratiate himself with the “Never Kevin” crowd.
McCarthy, who defied a subpoena from the House panel probing the 2021 assault on the Capitol, promised investigations of Biden’s family and administration, as well as of the FBI and CIA.
But the more he is seen as giving away the store to critics on the right, the more likely he is to alienate moderates, sparking open war between Senate and House Republicans, where there is already little love lost.
Strategists expect fraught cloak-and-dagger talks in the event of a McCarthy defeat that could see the emergence of a consensus Republican who can lock in a majority of votes with some Democratic support.
There has been behind-the-scenes speculation about how long McCarthy might stay in Congress if he were to lose out again.
Allies point out that he would not be short of private-sector job offers.
But some Congress watchers believe the career politician has the place in his blood and would want to remain as a backbencher.