McCarthy allies struggle to save his bid for U.S. House speaker as losses mount

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[1/7] Members of the U.S. House of Representatives gather for a fourth round of voting for a new House Speaker on the second day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 4, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Kevin McCarthy's Republican allies worked frantically behind closed doors on Wednesday to save his bid to become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, as he suffered defeat after defeat from 20 hardline conservatives from his own party.

McCarthy fell short in six consecutive ballots in two days, as Republican holdouts deemed him ideologically unreliable and defied a call for unity from former President Donald Trump. It was unclear whether he could overcome hardline opposition that could force the party to pick another candidate.

With frustrations rising among McCarthy's backers, lawmakers adjourned until 8 p.m. ET (0100 GMT on Thursday) to resume negotiations that had proven fruitless so far.

"We've either got to get some real conversations going with a select group of people, or we've got to get everybody back in the caucus room and start beating the daylights out of each other," Republican Representative Jeff Van Drew, a McCarthy supporter, told reporters.

The leadership fight has provided a dismaying start for the new Republican majority in the House after the party managed to secure a slim 222-212 majority in November's elections.

The internal struggle underscores the challenges the party could face over the next two years, heading into the 2024 presidential election.

The last time the House failed to elect a speaker on the first ballot was in 1923, during a contest that took nine ballots to resolve.

McCarthy maintained an optimistic persona. "We'll get to 218 when we solve our problems and we all get together," the California Republican told reporters.

His supporters had hoped that repeated votes would wear down opponents. But as the day progressed with no sign of headway, Republican faith in McCarthy's success appeared to be flagging.

"At some point, there will be a speaker, and it will be a Republican," Representative Tom Cole predicted.

Other names floated as possibilities included No. 2 House Republican Steve Scalise and Representative Jim Jordan - who received 20 votes when nominated on Tuesday. Both said they backed McCarthy.

COMPROMISE CANDIDATE?

The possibility of the House electing a Republican speaker with Democratic help appeared to gain traction.

Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur tweeted that she wished she "could be part of some kind of unity caucus that would yield (McCarthy) the votes."

Progressive Democrat Ro Khanna also said he could support a moderate Republican who agreed to share subpoena power with Democrats and to avoid brinkmanship over government funding and the debt ceiling. He cited House Republicans Brian Fitzpatrick, Mike Gallagher and Dave Joyce as possibilities.

"I'm open to it," Khanna told Reuters, adding that other Democrats could also be on board. "There'd be a significant number if it's the right Republican with the right commitments."

House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters that Republicans had not approached Democrats about that option.

Republicans sought to determine whether McCarthy could garner enough votes to succeed as speaker by negotiating deals with holdouts. The group wants greater control over leadership and more influence over spending and the debt.

McCarthy, who has served as the top House Republican since 2019, secured only 201 votes of the 218 needed, while 20 Republicans voted on Wednesday for Representative Byron Donalds, a Republican first elected in 2020. One Republican declined to back a specific candidate. All 212 of the chamber's Democrats voted for Jeffries.

Opponents said the leadership fight could drag on for weeks.

"It's worth taking a few days or a few weeks to get the best possible speaker," said Republican Representative Bob Good, one of the holdouts.

The vote was also a rebuke of Trump, who urged fellow Republicans to set aside their differences.

"It's now time for all of our GREAT Republican House Members to VOTE FOR KEVIN," Trump wrote on his social media site Truth Social on Wednesday ahead of the day's votes.

Trump remains an influential figure among Republicans and is so far the only announced presidential candidate for 2024. Some in the party have blamed Trump for the failure of Republicans to win more congressional seats in the midterms.

Republican control of the House could empower the party to frustrate Democratic President Joe Biden's legislative agenda. But the standoff raised questions about whether the House will be able to meet basic obligations such as funding government operations, let alone advance other policy priorities.

"This is not a good look," Biden said of the House leadership struggle, speaking to reporters at the White House. "This is the United States of America, and I hope they get their act together."

Reporting by David Morgan, Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Makini Brice, Moira Warburton, Gram Slattery and Trevor Hunnicutt; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Will Dunham, Scott Malone and Howard Goller

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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