(CNN) — Governing by chaos is back.
Two years after the master of political mayhem, ex-President Donald Trump, stormed out of Washington in disgrace, Republicans have finally won back some power.
But they still don’t know how to properly use it.
After weeks of vowing to hold President Joe Biden to account, the new GOP House majority arrived in town Tuesday — and promptly failed in its most basic task: electing a speaker to lead it. A revolt of ultra-hardliners in an already hardline conference dealt humiliation to Kevin McCarthy, the California lawmaker who saw his decades-old dream of wielding the gavel dashed — at least for now.
Even Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, known more for embracing conspiracy theories than stable governance, complained that the party was thwarting its own goals “because 19 Republicans decided to blow up the Speaker’s race.” (Greene backs McCarthy).
McCarthy became the first candidate to fall short in a first ballot for speaker in a century. Most poignantly, the impasse means Republicans are unable even to assume the control they won in the midterms as a new House can’t yet be sworn in.
Extraordinary scenes on the House floor
On a surreal day, the 118th Congress opened with Republicans fighting Republicans, while Democrats — who should have been mourning their lost majority — were joyous at the GOP circus they beheld.
“Hakeem, Hakeem,” Democrats chanted as their new leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, earned more votes than McCarthy in the first three roll calls of the new House the GOP is supposed to control — although he too fell short of the 218 majority.
At one point, Ohio firebrand Rep. Jim Jordan, a hero of the right, stood to nominate McCarthy for speaker, only for 19 of the rejectionists to vote that he should have the top job that he insists he doesn’t want. (Jordan is more interested in lacerating Biden’s appointees as chair of the Judiciary Committee).
A daylong debacle, in which McCarthy appeared to have no strategy other than a beat-the-head-against-a-brick-wall approach, ended with the House in an absurd limbo. Smartly dressed family members who traveled to Washington to see their new lawmakers proudly sworn in were bored and disappointed. The House adjourned and will resume on Wednesday at noon, even though there’s little sign the deadlock will break.
“I didn’t think we were going to get any more productive by continuing on the day,” McCarthy told reporters late Tuesday. But he insisted he wouldn’t be dropping out of the race.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said, adding, “We only need 11 more votes to win,” implying that he thinks he can get a number of members to vote present, which would lower the threshold he’d need.
Takeaways from a surreal day
The picture will become clearer on Wednesday as the fourth vote looms. But here are some conclusions from Tuesday’s drama.
— The GOP civil war, which erupted with the Tea Party backlash to the Obama administration, is far from burned out. It was responsible for the departures of Republican House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner and was put into overdrive by Trump. And as soon as the party had a sniff of power again, that strife burst into the open as radicals seek to destroy a party establishment that has already shifted far right to appease them.
— Even if McCarthy prevails, he will be a weak speaker who may be in office but barely in power. The Californian had weeks to get his majority together. Either he inaccurately counted the votes or has no control over his conference. Neither scenario is likely to lead to a majority that effectively trains its fire on Democrats and the White House and can build a strong case for voters for the 2024 election. If Republicans can’t unite on an easy vote — for speaker — how will they come together on tough ones, on government spending bills, for example?
— Political arsonists cannot be won over. Leadership sources say Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Andy Biggs of Arizona and other members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus were offered multiple concessions by McCarthy, including weakening the speaker’s capacity to cling on to power. But they refused, making clear that this is as much about personalities as ideology. They brand McCarthy as a sell-out, the biggest alligator in the Washington “swamp” whom they will never trust.
“Maybe the right person for the speaker of the House isn’t someone who has sold shares in himself for more than a decade to get it,” Gaetz said on the floor on Tuesday in a cutting jab at McCarthy, who sat a few feet away.
— McCarthy may have nothing to offer the renegades to win their votes. They disdain big committee posts and don’t dream of passing signature bills. They don’t care that a majority of the GOP in the House wants McCarthy. For them, as it was for Trump, the chaos is the point. Taking on the “swamp” gets them booked on conservative talk shows, boosts their fundraising and polishes their MAGA credentials.
Former Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state — who voted to impeach Trump, lost a primary to a rival backed by the ex-president, who then went on to lose the general election to a Democrat — told CNN’s Jake Tapper Tuesday the rebels were in it for themselves.
“It’s just drama. … They have this outsize platform,” she said. “It’s just ridiculous.”
— The tiny Republican majority — which means McCarthy could only afford to lose four votes for speaker — will dominate the 118th Congress. It not only gave the hardliners the chance to hold McCarthy hostage in the race for speaker; it will mean that at any moment, the House can be shut down over just a few votes. This isn’t just a concern for the eventual speaker. The White House should be worried too, given looming showdowns over government budgets and raising the debt ceiling.
Ironically, McCarthy may have only himself to blame. By quickly embracing Trump after initially criticizing him over the January 6, 2021, insurrection, he linked his party’s midterm election campaign irrevocably to Trump’s reputation. But many voters were alienated by the ex-president’s election denialism and landed McCarthy with a much smaller and more unworkable House majority than he expected.
— One interpretation of the midterms was that voters — exhausted by the turbulence of the Trump years and a once-in-a-century pandemic — gave a cry for stability and calm and were therefore not willing to hand all the power available in November back to Republicans. (While they fell short of a red wave in the House, the GOP failed to win back the Senate and Democrats grew their majority). Farcical scenes in the House on Tuesday were hardly what those voters had in mind in November.
— And Democrats are already trying to make political capital out of it, seeing vindication for their claims that Republicans are still not fit for power and should be kicked out at the first opportunity in the next election. “I just watched House Republicans plunge into utter chaos on the House floor,” Jeffries told Democratic donors in a fundraising email. “This changes everything for Democrats. We now have a huge opportunity to step in and show what we can do.”
‘The Taliban 20’
If anything, McCarthy got weaker with each roll call, even if one senior GOP source told CNN he would never back down and “we’re going to war.” Some GOP members are now referring to the rebels as “the chaos caucus” or “The Taliban 20,” CNN’s Manu Raju reported.
But one lawmaker who opposed McCarthy, South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, vowed he’d fight on for “six months” if need be to thwart the Californian’s bid for speaker. Despite the tough talk, McCarthy — who rather prematurely took up residence in the speaker’s office suite — is left with painful realities. They include the question of whether his bid is doomed, given that it seems impossible that he can win over the most hardline handful of objectors. A few Republicans late Tuesday seemed to be toying with the possibility that another candidate could emerge — after the House turned into a farce and their party was made a laughing stock.
But the chances of a compromise choice who could unite the ultra-right and more moderate members who won in Biden districts seems remote.
McCarthy will get a fresh chance on Wednesday to show that he can bring his conference under control and finally bring some order to the new Republican majority — even if the path ahead remains impossible to identify. Perhaps a day of infighting will convince all Republicans they are at risk of squandering their majority.
“We have an agenda and we want to implement that agenda and we can either be the conference who comes together to do that or we can let a select few keep us from being able to do that,” Utah Republican Rep. Blake Moore told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Tuesday, arguing that McCarthy had been successful in leading his party back to power in the House.
“You don’t take out a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter,” he added.
But after his triple loss in votes for speaker Tuesday, McCarthy must now prove it’s not three strikes and you are out.