Right-wing Republicans trigger speaker showdown in new US Congress
The speakership bid has been a high-wire act for US Republican Kevin McCarthy, who needed to keep his party's moderates united behind him while getting opponents on the right on his side
The speakership bid has been a high-wire act for US Republican Kevin McCarthy, who needed to keep his party's moderates united behind him while getting opponents on the right on his side

Washington (AFP) - The new US Congress was thrown into chaos on its first day Tuesday as rebel right-wing Republicans moved to block party favorite Kevin McCarthy from becoming speaker of the House of Representatives.

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 Republicans failed to elect a speaker in the opening two rounds of voting for the first time in a century, after nail-biting ballots that earned blanket coverage across US television networks.

Rather than celebrating their new control of the House, the party instead faces a drawn-out fight to elect a speaker that could further deepen internal divisions -- and put McCarthy’s political career on the line.

The 57-year-old needed 218 votes in the lower chamber, which flipped to a narrow 222-212 Republican majority after last year's midterm elections.

But he failed to bring into line the party rebels, including several high-profile allies of former president Donald Trump, and he was shocked by 19 "no" votes from his own side in both rounds.

His performance was so weak that he lost out by 203 votes to 212 to the Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries in both ballots -- although there was little doubt a Republican would ultimately claim the speaker's gavel.

"McCarthy has lost two ballots already. It's time to move on," tweeted one of his most vocal critics, Arizona's Andy Biggs, who secured 10 votes of his own in the first round.

McCarthy has long coveted the role, having withdrawn from the race in 2015 amid a number of blunders and a right-wing revolt.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.

Scott Perry, a leader of the rebels, said "if McCarthy had fought nearly as hard to defeat the failed, toxic policies of the Biden administration as he has for himself, he would be speaker of the House right now."

Digging in

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. 

McCarthy -- who is trying to avoid small cliques wandering off the floor to hold their own negotiations -- can keep members in the room and voting for as long as he has support from the majority of the full House.

Some lawmakers and staffers backing McCarthy had said he should bow out if unable to secure the gavel in the second round, US media reported.

The House can now move to further ballots until someone emerges with a majority, but it can also adjourn for the day, if a majority of lawmakers agree.

Any lawmaker can strictly offer a resolution to transform the contest to a secret ballot -- or alter the threshold by which a speaker is chosen -- although these options aren't seen as realistic.

Trump loyalty

One roadblock to McCarthy's 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.

No credible Republican alternative had emerged by round two, although the most obvious would be incoming House majority leader Steve Scalise, a McCarthyite who has nevertheless been clear that he has ambitions of his own.

The "Never Kevin" crowd are likely to see Scalise as more of the same, however.

McCarthy, who defied a subpoena from the House panel probing the 2021 assault on the Capitol, promised them investigations of Biden's family and administration, as well as of the FBI and CIA. 

But the more he is seen as giving in to 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.

It wasn't all doom and gloom for the Republicans in Congress.

The Senate also convened for its new term Tuesday, with Mitch McConnell, who heads the Republican minority, breaking the record for the longest-serving Senate leader.