For a man who knows his political history, Kevin McCarthy will be all too aware that he has earned his place in the annals for all the wrong reasons.
This week the Republican House majority leader became the first party leader in a century to fail to be elected Speaker in the initial round of voting. He solidified his place in the record books by coming up short in 13 subsequent votes spread across three days — a tally that was last surpassed in the run-up to the American Civil War.
The opening day of Congress on Tuesday was supposed to be one of celebration as lawmakers, many of them flanked by their families, were sworn is as members. By the end of the week, they were still there after successive rounds of voting failed to deliver McCarthy the Speaker’s gavel he has coveted for much of his political career, owing to a group of far-right rebels who had appeared determined to deny him a position that puts him next in line to the presidency after the vice-president.
Even though McCarthy eked out a victory in the early hours of Saturday morning, the days-long gridlock set the stage for an escalation of chaos in a Washington that has become well accustomed to dysfunction and discord in recent years.
Cheers and jeers rang out on the House floor as the rounds of ballots were cast, and scrums of reporters chased after McCarthy and his allies as they scrambled to hash out a deal. C-Span cameras, usually prohibited from filming the wheeling and dealing on the House floor, zoomed in on tense conversations among lawmakers at odds over what to do.
Democrats and Republicans alike said the chaos foreshadowed what could be years of legislative disarray.
“Electing the Speaker is the easy part. Legislating is the hard part,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee and senior Republican House aide. “The Republicans clearly [had] trouble doing the easy part. It should send a very clear signal that doing the hard things will be very difficult.”
Many in Washington had expected the pace of lawmaking to slow down after last November’s midterm elections ushered in a new era of divided government: Republicans underperformed expectations but nevertheless eked out a razor-thin majority to take back control of the House, the lower chamber of Congress, while Democrats held on to the Senate, the upper chamber, and the White House.
But the historic gridlock over who to select as Speaker has raised fresh concerns on both sides of the aisle that a small group of rebels stands to block big pieces of “must pass” legislation later this year. Top of mind is the debt ceiling, the limit on how much the US government can borrow.
Economists have warned that if lawmakers do not vote to raise the limit in the coming months, the US government risks defaulting on its debts for the first time in American history. Other big fights could include how to fund the government and avoid a shutdown, or whether to top up US military assistance to Ukraine.
“Any time that there is any difficult or controversial question that the House takes up, we will see a replay of this whole drama,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida. “That is going to continue eroding the American people’s trust and confidence in the institution.”
The Republican party is no stranger to strife within its ranks. Many of the same individuals who opposed McCarthy’s Speakership also caused headaches for Paul Ryan and John Boehner, the two previous Republican Speakers. But many in Washington see the latest shenanigans as a sign of a new level of dysfunction in Congress, fuelled in part by Donald Trump, the former president.
“These dynamics in the House Republicans predated Trump. He just accelerated the process of deterioration and decay in the culture of the House Republican conference,” said Curbelo, who lost his bid for re-election in 2018.
Trump, who remains the only Republican to declare his candidacy for president in 2024, attempted to intervene in the Speaker debate earlier in the week when he urged Republican lawmakers to rally around McCarthy. But those overtures fell on deaf ears, with some of his most loyal allies, including Colorado congresswoman Lauren Boebert, publicly telling the president to scrap his support for the California congressman.
Heye said while Trump had proved to not be “personally relevant” to the whip count, the drawn-out debate and party infighting laid bare his lasting influence on some members of the party.
“Obviously what is happening here is very Trumpy,” Heye said. “We are seeing Trumpism without Trump.”