McCarthy bids to nail down final speaker votes as US House returns

U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (L) and Rep.-elect Garret Graves (R-LA) watch the floor proceedings in House Chamber during the fourth day of elections for Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2023 in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

Republican frontrunner Kevin McCarthy was on the brink of being named as the new speaker of the US House of Representatives on Friday as he quelled a rebellion among his party's ranks that has paralyzed the lower chamber of Congress for days.

The Republicans, who hold a razor-thin majority, have been mired in internecine warfare as McCarthy lost a historic 11 consecutive ballots for the prestigious role, with around 20 conservative hardliners blocking his path since Tuesday.

But the 57-year-old Californian was able to pick up more than a dozen votes among the defectors in the 12th and 13th rounds on Friday after offering major concessions.

It was the only day in the tense, drawn-out process that saw McCarthy actually beat his Democratic opposite number Hakeem Jeffries, although neither has achieved the outright majority required to win the speakership.

"Just reminds me of what my father always told me," McCarthy told reporters. "It's not how you start, it's how you finish. And now we have to finish for the American public."

With the former storekeeper just three votes shy of a majority -- and two allies who had been out of Washington expected to return for the vote -- a 14th round was scheduled for 10:00pm (0300 GMT).

- Vindicated -

There have been more rounds of voting in the fractious, at times bitter, 2023 contest than in any speaker election since the Civil War.

Friday's wins vindicated the incongruous air of confidence McCarthy has projected all week, even as he was bleeding votes rather than adding to the base of around 200 Republicans who have backed him all along.

His party's takeover of Congress is expected to herald the end of cross-party cooperation, with the legislative process gridlocked and Republicans promising an aggressive agenda of investigations into most aspects of President Joe Biden's administration and his family.

Democrats and some of McCarthy's own supporters, in private, are concerned that he is offering his far-right critics radical policy commitments that will make the House ungovernable.

There were reports, which AFP has not verified, that he had agreed to propose keeping spending at 2022 levels, including a cap on military funding which would have the same effect as a $75 billion cut.

That has raised alarm among defense hawks pushing for the United States to project strength amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine and an emboldened Chinese stance on Taiwan.

No single lawmaker, however senior, has the authority to set budgets, but the fact that the suggestion was being taken seriously underscores the Republicans' turn towards isolationism under the leadership of Donald Trump.

Other lawmakers-elect were complaining that McCarthy was handing the hardliners plum committee posts and changes to the rules that would severely curtail the role of the speaker.

- Poisoned chalice -

The renegade Republicans are understood to have flipped their votes in exchange for rule changes making it possible to oust the speaker in a vote called by just one member.

They are also asking for an outsized role in deciding which bills make it to the floor and how they are handled.

The length and precariousness of the speaker selection process highlighted how difficult McCarthy would find it to corral votes in the 118th Congress should he be elected.

Democrats said his new role would be a poisoned chalice, as the compromises he has made would leave him as the weakest speaker in modern history.

"He has moved steadily to the right and he has capitulated at every turn to these extremist elements in the GOP," Maryland congressman Jamie Raskin told MSNBC, referring to the Republicans by their nickname, the "Grand Old Party."

"And that's what makes this such a scary moment in terms of the precipice of the of the 118th Congress, because there are a lot of things where he has just completely given the keys of power away to the most fanatical parts of his caucus."


© Agence France-Presse

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