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‘There isn’t any House’: Speaker drama ripples throughout basic congressional function

Respresentative Kevin McCarthy (left) watched floor proceedings during the fourth round of voting for House speaker on Wednesday.Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — As the sun set on the second day of the 118th Congress Wednesday, one chamber technically had no members.

“There isn’t any House,” said California Democratic Representative Anna Eshoo, who has served since 1993.

As Washington was spellbound by the drama unfolding in the new Republican majority, with Kevin McCarthy of California on Wednesday again failing on three consecutive votes to secure the speaker’s gavel, questions were emerging about how the House could function going forward. The impasse prompted an adjournment until 8 p.m., after which McCarthy and his allies again tried to bring the restless members of the caucus to his side, but his detractors emerged from the meetings seemingly unmoved.

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The night ended on one final, messy note: Democrats forced a vote on whether to adjourn as Republicans wanted until the next day. In a chaotic scene of straggling lawmakers running down the aisles to get their votes in on time, Republicans finally prevailed on one thing, to resume at noon on Thursday for the seventh round of voting on a speaker.

Meanwhile, Democrats said they had no plans to help Republicans out of the mess.

Rules of the House vest virtually all organization power in the speaker. So with no speaker, everything is in limbo. Members have yet to be sworn in. Until they are, they cannot be paid or perform some official duties.

This is the first time in 100 years that the majority party’s candidate for speaker hasn’t won the position on the first ballot on the full floor of the House, where they must receive a majority of lawmakers’ votes. How much longer the process takes is anyone’s guess.

“This is an embarrassment to our country,” Eshoo said.

McCarthy’s allies have been alternating between negotiation and arm twisting since voting on Tuesday. But it was to no avail: McCarthy failed to move a single vote in his direction on Wednesday. In fact, one of his former supporters, Indiana Representative Victoria Spartz, began voting “present,” a way of voting for no one.

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“We’re going to continue to talk, we’ll find an agreement where we all get together, and we’ll work through this and we’ll get it done,” McCarthy said as he headed to the House floor just before the noon vote Wednesday. Asked what happens if he continues to lose support, McCarthy said, “Doesn’t matter, I still have the most votes.”

He was only partially correct: McCarthy had the most votes of any Republican; Democrats have gleefully touted that their candidate, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, so far has the most votes in any of the six ballots — 212.

The mood in the chamber was palpably different Wednesday than the day before. Gone were most of the flourishes that members made as they cast their votes, replaced by the monotonous drone of names being repeated over and over. Smatterings of applause still popped up, but they were more muted. Many members were on their phones, passing the time. Gone, too, were the families that had attended Tuesday’s events.

The crowd was also growing punchier. As Wisconsin Representative Mike Gallagher took a turn for Republicans nominating McCarthy for the fourth time, he directly engaged his Democratic colleagues, saying they were misunderstanding the situation.

“Sure, it looks messy,” he said, to which Democrats laughed, jeered, and applauded over his words. “By design,” he continued, to more laughter.

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“We air it all out in the open for the American people to see, because at the end of the day . . . the American people are in charge,” Gallagher said.

Later in the day, Democrats openly jeered Republicans as they gave the fifth and sixth nominating speeches, yelling out interjections.

After a huddle Wednesday morning, their strategy was set: remain united behind Jeffries, and watch Republicans flail.

“Let everybody watch,” said Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat. “They told everybody during the campaign that they were going to put together a governing majority.”

Neal said that past Republicans speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan had some good will with Democrats. But McCarthy doesn’t appear to have any.

In the meantime, members began to ask how basic House functions could proceed without a speaker.

For example, Rhode Island Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat, noted that the metal detectors at the entrance to the House chamber had been taken down.

“I was sort of wondering, just now that magnetometers were removed,” he said. “Under what authority?”

Representative Pete Aguilar of California, the third-ranking House Democrat, said that because he and other lawmakers have not been sworn in, there’s a real question about whether they can help constituents with problems in the federal bureaucracy. And because committees haven’t been formed, they won’t be allowed to hire staff.

“This is a crisis of the Congress,” Aguilar said. “And it’s a crisis in the hands of the Republican dysfunction.”

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Some Republicans also complained about the impact of the stalemate. Gallagher said that because he has not been sworn in, he lacked the security clearance to meet Wednesday with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But despite the growing seriousness of the situation, House Democrats were adamant they were not willing to help out McCarthy by skipping out on the speaker votes or voting present to lower the threshold he needs to win.

“This is a problem of their own making. This is called leadership,” outgoing Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. “Don’t put this at the Democrats’ doorstep.”

The drama may be hitting newly elected lawmakers the hardest. Michigan Representative Hillary Scholten, a Democrat, said many stood ready to fight for back pay for themselves or staff if the process continues to drag on.

Scholten was one of many members who brought their children on Tuesday. They got more of a lesson than they bargained for, she said.

“We kept them out of school for the historic day and little did we know they would just really also be getting quite a history and civics lesson — also a math lesson — as they kept track of the votes,” Scholten joked.

But she also said that during a closed-door meeting of Democrats Wednesday morning, she asked what new members who want their families to participate in their swearing-in should expect.

“There are so many of us, for whom families have traveled across the country to be here and waited all day, hoping to see a loved one sworn into Congress,” Scholten said. “Not only is the lack of organization on the Republican side creating difficulty for the American people and not governing but it’s a real personal sacrifice.”

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It isn’t just Democrats. Oklahoma Republican Representative Tom Cole, the presumed incoming chair of the House Rules Committee, said he was “very concerned” that “a lot of things are not getting done,” and expressed sympathy for the new lawmakers.

“It was a pretty big day for me 20 years ago,” Cole said. “My wife and my son and my extended family all came up here to get to see me sworn into Congress, and it was a fairly expensive operation as I recall. And, you know, these families have come a long way. We got 70-odd new members. . . . I regret that. That’s unfair.”

But there were no answers to be had, even from California Representative Zoe Lofgren, a longtime Democratic lawmaker and the outgoing chair of the House Administration Committee, a position colloquially known as the mayor of Capitol Hill. She struggled to explain procedures for logistical matters, such as McCarthy’s move into the speaker’s suite without actually being the speaker.

“This has never happened before,” Lofgren said. “So I’m afraid there’s no precedent for it.”


Tal Kopan can be reached at tal.kopan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talkopan. Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at jim.puzzanghera@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JimPuzzanghera.