WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Tuesday began their new majority rule with a chaotic and historic debacle, an embarrassing failure to rally around a leader that showcased the difficulties they will face in performing even the basics of governing and their lack of a unifying agenda.
Handed narrow control of the House by voters in November, Republicans squandered the opening hours of the new Congress they could have used to dispel concerns about their capabilities. Instead, they feuded in a disorderly display over who among them should be speaker as the most extreme elements of the new majority repeatedly rejected Representative Kevin McCarthy of California.
Despite Mr. McCarthy’s prominent role in fund-raising and delivering the House to Republicans and his backing among most in the party ranks, about 20 Republicans refused to support him and for the first time in a century forced repeated rounds of voting for the speakership. After three flailing attempts at electing a speaker, Republicans abruptly called for the House to be adjourned until noon Wednesday as they scrambled for a way out of their leadership morass. The stalemate meant the usually routine organization of the new House did not occur and its members were not sworn in, nor could any legislation be considered.
The paralysis underscored the dilemma facing House Republicans: No matter the concessions made to some of those on the far right, they simply will not relent and join their colleagues even if it is for the greater good of their party, and perhaps the nation. They consider themselves conservative purists who cannot be placated unless all their demands are met — and maybe not even then. Their agenda is mostly to defund, disrupt and dismantle government, not to participate in it.
It means that whoever emerges from the messy leadership fight will face deep-seated resistance when trying to shepherd spending bills and other measures that are fundamental to governance. Tuesday’s spectacle reflected that House Republicans have grown more skilled at legislative sabotage than legislative success, leaving the difficult business of getting things done to others.
“The rebels just don’t like McCarthy, and they seem to not be able to find a way to like him,” said John Feehery, a longtime Republican strategist and former top House aide. “They lack a legislative maturity to understand it can’t be personal. It has to be just business.”
Mr. McCarthy himself sought to make the conflict about something bigger than himself in an appeal to his opponents to put aside whatever feelings they had about him so Republicans could move forward.
A New Congress Begins
The 118th Congress will be sworn in on Jan. 3, with Republicans taking control of the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
“This can’t be about that you are going to leverage somebody for your own personal gain inside Congress,” Mr. McCarthy told reporters. “This has to be about the country.”
But the holdouts were not yet budging.
“I have heard nothing new from Kevin,” said Representative Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado and a McCarthy foe, between rounds of votes.
To try to quell the revolt, Mr. McCarthy had already promised new rules that would open him or another figure to regular efforts to depose them from the speakership, along with requirements that would leave the leadership hamstrung and at the mercy of conservatives in trying to advance legislation.
Representative Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican and hard-right alternative for speaker favored by some conservatives, conceded that the legislative outlook was limited at best, considering that bills favored by House Republicans were unlikely to pass in the Democratic Senate or to be signed by President Biden.
“So be it,” said Mr. Jordan in nominating Mr. McCarthy. “They have to answer to the people in 2024.”
He also alluded to what was likely to be an epic struggle to keep the government running and stave off a disastrous debt default with Republicans in charge of the House, saying that their principal task was to ensure that Congress never again passed the kind of sprawling spending bill enacted last month.
The breakdown on the House floor was the latest and most pronounced of the assaults by the hard right on its own congressional leadership in recent years. Archconservatives drove out John A. Boehner in 2015, denied Mr. McCarthy the votes needed to succeed Mr. Boehner at the time and complained about the stewardship of the compromise consensus choice of Paul D. Ryan. But Tuesday’s attack was their most aggressive yet, a nationally televised implosion that showcased the intransigence and unwillingness to compromise of a segment of House Republicans in what should have been a moment of triumph.
Even Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, typically a Republican firebrand eager to stir turmoil, castigated those holding out on Mr. McCarthy because of how it reflected on the party’s image.
“If the base only understood that 19 Republicans voting against McCarthy are playing Russian roulette with our hard-earned Republican majority right now,” Ms. Greene said on Twitter. “This is the worst thing that could possibly happen.”
Democrats were enjoying the tumult to a degree but also recognized the problems it could mean down the road. Representative Mike Quigley, a senior Democrat from Illinois, said the speaker fight was the culmination of a growing Republican ethos of “taking their ball and going home” if they fail to get what they demand.
Other Democrats watched in amazement as they saw Republicans open their reign with a clash that would leave whomever was eventually chosen badly undermined and the party’s strength diluted from the start.
“What a weakened position they have put themselves in,” marveled Representative Rosa DeLauro, a senior Democrat from Connecticut.
The uproar in the House was in marked contrast to the opening day of the Senate, where seven new members were sworn in and senators then quietly adjourned for three weeks. While House Republicans were ensnared in a brutal internal battle, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, was scheduled to appear alongside President Biden on Wednesday to celebrate funding for a major public works project in Kentucky.
As they sought a way out of their dilemma, some Republicans acknowledged the poor message they were sending with the stalemate but also said that it was likely to be a distant memory with voters once the leadership question was resolved.
“Just like everything in three months that becomes small ball, it becomes insignificant,” said Representative Ken Buck, Republican of Colorado. “In a year and half, when people are starting to think about voting again, they are not thinking about that. They are thinking about what have we accomplished. It is more important to do things than it is to have a good first impression.”
His colleagues no doubt hope Mr. Buck is correct.