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House Republicans try to elect a new speaker for a third straight day

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For the third day, the House of Representatives convened to elect a new speaker. And for the third day, Kevin McCarthy failed to get the votes to take the gavel. McCarthy keeps insisting he will eventually win.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: I think we're having good discussions. I think everybody wants to find a solution. And the good thing about it is, we work this all out at the beginning so the rest of the Congress will be very productive for the American public.

KELLY: But the reality is, he keeps losing multiple ballots, and he is not picking up any new support. The stalemate is starting to affect constituents, and lawmakers say they can't do their jobs. NPR's congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us, again, from the Capitol. Hey, Deirdre.

DIERDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Is frozen the right word to describe this process - McCarthy just making zero progress?

WALSH: I mean, maybe there's a bit of a thaw. There continues to be a bloc of about 20 House Republicans voting against McCarthy on ballot after ballot. There have been more active negotiations between McCarthy and his allies and this anti-establishment crowd who's been blocking his path to get the gavel. But McCarthy's own claims he's making progress, really, to get a solution soon are kind of hard to believe because those numbers don't change. He's agreeing to demands that some of these members want, about how the House will operate. But he's not getting any of them to actually vote for him. So this impasse continues.

KELLY: You said he's agreeing to demands, demands like what?

WALSH: These are things that would actually weaken the already weak power of the speaker, who has such a narrow majority. Remember, House Republicans only have a four-seat majority. So it's going to be hard to keep members united. There's talk about allowing a rules change that would allow just one lawmaker to make a motion to essentially remove the speaker. They also want to guarantee some committee slots to some of these anti-establishment Republicans.

These things empower this small group who, for the most part, are really focused on derailing legislation instead of passing a broad agenda. Some members also want McCarthy to vow to shut down the government if these major federal spending cuts can't be adopted in an annual spending bill, which seems hard to do with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president. One thing that does have support from many Republicans is allowing more votes on amendments on the floor. That's actually something that hasn't happened for years.

KELLY: Deirdre, you've been in and out of the chamber today, all week. What is the mood among members who are sitting there, hour after hour, potentially looking at a fourth day and still no speaker?

WALSH: There's really a lot of frustration, and it's really sort of spilling out into the open, even from McCarthy's own allies who keep saying they want to stick with him. They're upset about these concessions that McCarthy is being forced to make to some of these people on the far right, who they feel is sort of holding this whole process hostage. Arkansas Republican Steve Womack, who's a McCarthy supporter, told reporters he's so frustrated, he even said there's no word in Webster's dictionary to define how he feels right now.

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STEVE WOMACK: Being mayor of Rogers, Ark., was a hell of a lot better than this.

KELLY: Wow. That sums it up. I do want to continue to emphasize, this is serious. Nothing else can happen in the House while this drama continues to play out. What are the implications?

WALSH: Right. As you said, nothing else can happen. Members can't be sworn in. We're actually going to get to a point next week that some committee staff won't get paid because the committees don't have authority to approve their payrolls. One House Republican told me he's concerned about congressional aides. But he also said it's a bigger problem for the 350 million people that all lawmakers represent. Nebraska Republican Congressman Don Bacon told me he lost his security clearance because he hasn't been sworn in. He had to cancel a meeting on China with the chair of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley. Another House Republican, Brad Wenstrup of Ohio - he's on the intelligence committee. He said he can't even get into the room in the Capitol for a security briefing.

KELLY: And how are they explaining this to their constituents?

WALSH: Some are starting to grow more worried about the basic functions they and their offices do every week, providing some federal assistance. Bacon said his office was told they can't process constituent requests.

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DON BACON: We could call the agencies. They're not allowed to help us right now. So this hurts constituents, nationwide, if they have a disability issue, they have a passport issue, a visa issue, you name it. All the things - all the things that we do, all the time. And so this - this is hurting us there.

WALSH: NPR reached out to some agencies to see what they're telling the hill. But politically, Republicans are also just worried about their own brand. This open division is playing out in real time and makes the party look really chaotic and unable to govern.

KELLY: NPR's Deirdre Walsh at the Capitol, thank you.

WALSH: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
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