[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) - The U.S. House of Representatives, mired in a chaotic leadership battle, rejected Republican Kevin McCarthy's bid to lead the chamber two more times on Wednesday as a small group of holdouts in the party defied former President Donald Trump's call for unity.
Despite Trump's appeal, McCarthy fell short in consecutive votes on Wednesday for House speaker after losing three votes on Tuesday, as roughly 20 Republicans on the party's right flank refused to back a candidate they deemed ideologically unreliable.
McCarthy's backers promptly moved to a sixth vote, though it was unclear what path - if any - the congressman from California had to secure a majority. The last time the House failed to elect a speaker on the first ballot was 1923.
The leadership fight has provided a dismaying start for the new Republican majority in the House after the party managed to secure a slim majority in the chamber - 222-212 - in the November midterm elections. The internal struggle underscores the challenges the party could face over the next two years, heading into the 2024 presidential election.
The results were identical in both rounds of voting on Wednesday.
McCarthy, who has served as the top House Republican since 2019, secured only 201 votes, while 20 Republicans voted for Representative Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican first elected in 2020. One Republican declined to back a specific candidate. All 212 of the chamber's Democrats voted for their leader, Hakeem Jeffries.
"I think the path is very difficult right now for Kevin," Donalds told Fox News after the vote.
McCarthy said he ultimately will prevail.
"The conversation will continue. We'll get there," McCarthy told reporters before Wednesday's voting.
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 is 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 morning ahead of the day's voting.
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.
Hardliners called on him to take another tack.
"The president needs to tell Kevin McCarthy, 'Sir, you do not have the votes and it's time to withdraw,'" said Republican Representative Lauren Boebert said, referring to Trump.
The weaker-than-expected performance in the midterm elections contributed to the House leadership crisis by leaving McCarthy dependent upon the support of a small group of hardliners in his party. That group wants greater control over leadership and more influence over the party's approach to spending and debt.
Republican control of the House could empower the party to frustrate Democratic President Joe Biden's legislative agenda. But the leadership 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 ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
"This is not a good look," Biden said of the House leadership struggle, speaking to reporters at the White House. "It's not a good thing. This is the United States of America, and I hope they get their act together."
Trump paired his endorsement of McCarthy with a racist insult of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's wife. McConnell was due to appear on Wednesday with Biden in Kentucky to highlight infrastructure investments included in a bipartisan bill passed in 2021.
The House hardliners have blasted such legislative compromises, raising fears about the ability of Congress to prevent default when the federal government approaches its debt ceiling later this year.
McCarthy's opponents on Tuesday selected conservative Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio as their candidate. Jordan backs McCarthy and said on Wednesday he has urged hardliners not to nominate him.
Incoming House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana also was seen as a possible alternative for speaker.
The right-wing rebellion ratcheted up frustrations among other Republicans, who said McCarthy's opponents were stalling plans to investigate Biden and his administration and advance legislative priorities on immigration, energy and other matters.
Some Republicans said continued obstruction could lead them to work with Democrats to elect a moderate Republican as speaker. Jeffries told reporters that Republicans had not approached Democrats about that option.
"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.
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, Colleen Jenkins, Scott Malone and Chizu Nomiyama
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