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Burning down the House: The colorful chaos of a speaker-less chamber

Munching on popcorn. Riffing on “Groundhog Day.” Booing loudly, scrolling their phones and strapping on their infants. By the time the battle for speaker ended its second day of stalemate, House members had run the gamut of ways to cope.

Lawmakers sat in their chairs for hours, chatting among themselves, as frustration (Republicans) and amusement (Democrats) reined over Kevin McCarthy‘s repeated failure to claim the chamber’s top gavel.

“Well, it’s Groundhog Day. Again,” Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) said from the floor as she nominated McCarthy for the top slot Wednesday afternoon — yet again, unsuccessfully.

Encapsulating the chaotic atmosphere on the Hill this week was the aftermath of a Fox News hit that McCarthy backer Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) delivered Wednesday to argue that every day without a speaker undermines Americans’ confidence that Republicans can govern and further divides the party.

“If you want to burn down the House, metaphorically, then what is your plan after you do this? I don’t really see a plan B right now,” McCaul said. He then got knocked off his feet, live on TV, while reporters chased McCarthy after the sixth failed speaker vote.

On the most visible measure of success, McCarthy’s tally of support was unchanged throughout Wednesday save for Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.), a prior McCarthy backer who changed her vote to present. Lawmakers from both parties loudly applauded each time McCarthy and Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York cast their votes for themselves.

“I’m tired of your stupid platitudes that some consultant told you to say on the campaign trail,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) told reporters about the anti-McCarthy bloc, before getting even more blunt: “Behind closed doors, tell us what you actually want or shut the fuck up. That’s my message.”

As the usual pomp and circumstance surrounding Congress’ traditional swearing-in day turned to dismay and circumspection on Tuesday, the signs of weariness began to show. Families of members-elect, many with young children dressed up for ceremonial photos, faded and departed after realizing the speaker election would not wrap up promptly.

Lawmakers with young children hung out with their little ones in the cloakroom — while the extended process forced Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) to make the room a changing station.

Despite those inconveniences, Democrats generally welcomed the sight of Republicans in disarray after two years of intense focus on their own divisions. Several Democrats tweeted pictures of themselves hauling buckets of popcorn to the floor as the GOP continued to seek a path forward.

Many Democrats copped to scrolling their phones — California Rep. Scott Peters was spotted solving a puzzle — as they waited for hours to stand up and person-by-person cast their ballots for Jeffries. After six ballots, Democrats remained united with Jeffries nabbing 212 votes each time, always beating McCarthy’s tally.

“There may not be a legislature in the United States of America, but there are tacos in the cloakroom,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) tweeted on Wednesday.

There were also tense moments on the floor between the two parties over the days of voting. Cammack drew howls and boos on Wednesday when she accused Democrats of drinking during roll-call votes. Democrats sought to effectively sanction her for those comments, but there was no mechanism to do so — the chamber cannot adopt its rules until picking a speaker.

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), the House Democratic Caucus chair, called the allegation “ridiculous” and said it ultimately only hurt the chamber.

“Those types of personal attacks aren’t really helpful to the institution,” he said in an interview. “And we’ve demonstrated we want to work to get things done, and inflammatory comments from her are unhelpful.”

In a nod to the rules-free dynamic, one member even said they intentionally wore their overcoat onto the floor one day — violating a rule that they were frequently reprimanded for when the House rules are set.

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who wanted to sanction Cammack for the words, added: “[When] we have those really, really long votes, the floor can get really fun. It can be weird, but not today, and even if it was, so it’s only Democrats who drink alcohol? Why is that a pot shot?”

Meanwhile, some members in both parties signaled that their outward agita over McCarthy’s ongoing struggle for the gavel could result in unexpected alliances. Several Democrats suggested they’re open to discussing a so-called unity Republican speaker, while Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) suggested his party might have to turn to a second choice of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) if McCarthy couldn’t make real progress.

Other lawmakers viewed the drawn-out fight for the speakership as a bad signal to the rest of the world about America’s ability to govern itself — and voiced concern that the display of ineptitude would only embolden its enemies.

“People want to know that in America we are capable of effective government,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said on “Fox News.” “There are other countries that can’t form governments for months. That’s not the United States of America. So for the sake of the country and the institution, I hope we resolve this this week.”

Nicholas Wu, Sarah Ferris and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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