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House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy makes his way through a large crowd of news media as he heads to the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan 4.JON CHERRY/Reuters

In the midst of the jostling and jockeying of a second failed day of attempts to elect a Republican Speaker of the U.S. House, Florida Rep. Kat Cammack stood before her conservative colleagues and issued a plea.

“Today, I am asking my friends and colleagues: Are we the party of Reagan Republicans?” she asked. It was a plea for unity, an entreaty for conservatives to come together in selecting a Speaker now that they hold a slim majority in the chamber.

But it was Republicans aligned with another conservative president – Donald Trump – who held the power, effectively grinding the operation of the House of Representatives to a halt by blocking the selection of a Speaker for a second day.

McCarthy fails again in bid for speaker, GOP in disarray

U.S. Congress impasse seems primed to go on for an infinite amount of time

The impasse in the House – a moment fraught with so much anxiety that a U.S. Navy chaplain on Wednesday prayed for deliverance “from intransigence and impudence” – is a new manifestation of the politics of the U.S. populist right, and an early look at the upheaval it now stands ready to bring to Congress as Republicans assume a new position of power.

By Wednesday evening, after six unsuccessful votes to choose a Speaker, the House once again adjourned in a state of limbo. Most Republicans want Kevin McCarthy, the California representative who was previously the House minority leader.

But Mr. McCarthy’s bid has been opposed by a group of 20 Republicans, most elected as anti-establishment Make America Great Again candidates who are now determined to bring that form of populism into Congress by upending the way it does business.

Mr. Trump himself has been unable to persuade them to relent. In a social-media post Wednesday, the former president urged “all of our GREAT Republican House Members to VOTE FOR KEVIN.” Hours later, Lauren Boebert, the far-right Colorado Republican conspiracy-theory adherent who has been among the former president’s most loyal supporters, spurned that call from the House floor. Mr. Trump, she said, should instead “tell Kevin McCarthy that, ‘sir, you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw.’ ”

With his own power diminishing, Mr. Trump has “set in motion forces he can’t control any more,” said Morris Fiorina, a Stanford University political scientist. “He can’t put the genie back in the lamp.”

The nine-seat House majority that Republicans won in midterm elections is smaller than the core of Freedom Caucus representatives determined to remake U.S. politics in part by reshaping the political system. They are demanding rule changes that would give more influence to individual representatives, eroding the power of party elders. They want a pledge to balance budgets – advocating government shutdowns over new borrowing – a vote on term limits and consideration of a border plan advocated by Texas Republicans that would include deporting more people and completing construction of Mr. Trump’s border wall.

“This country needs leadership that does not reflect this city, this town, that is badly broken” said Texas Republican Chip Roy. He pledged to hold fast against Mr. McCarthy until he has received pledges to stop debt spending, address border issues and quit funding “bureaucrats that are stepping over the freedoms of the American people.”

Florida Republican Matt Gaetz dismissed Mr. McCarthy as too wedded to the establishment to make such changes. Far-right conservatives are also furious that Mr. McCarthy delivered financial support to more traditional candidates in primary races.

“If you want to drain the swamp, you cannot put the biggest alligator in charge of the exercise,” Mr. Gaetz said.

It has been a century since the U.S. Congress has taken multiple ballots to confirm a House Speaker. In 1855-1856, meanwhile, it took 133 ballots and two months, in a historical era that the U.S. House of Representatives, in its own records, describes as marked by “a poisoned and deteriorating political climate” amid “conflict over slavery and a rising anti-immigrant mood in the nation.”

This year, the 20 renegade Republicans have nominated several alternatives to Mr. McCarthy, including Florida Rep. Byron Donalds. Mr. Donalds and Hakeem Jeffries, the Democrat nominee for Speaker, are both Black. The House has never before nominated two Black candidates for Speaker.

Those backing Mr. Donalds want a reversal of the centralization of power that Newt Gingrich perfected as House Speaker for the Republicans and Nancy Pelosi largely upheld for Democrats.

“For far too long, conservatives left their leverage on the table and let the establishment ignore us and sideline us,” Ms. Boebert tweeted Wednesday. “Real leadership is realizing that consolidating power in one person is unacceptable.”

But they are also taking advantage of a political environment that has delivered razor-thin margins between Republicans and Democrats, a phenomenon Prof. Fiorina called Unstable Majorities in the title of his 2017 book.

“In the old days, if these people had tried to mount this kind of revolt, it would have been squashed like a bug,” he said. “Now the fact is, with the majority so slim, these people have the leverage – the leadership just doesn’t have the power to squash them.”

That suggests this week’s fractious battles for House Speaker are a foretaste of what is to come. Republicans have already abandoned many of the traditional elements of electoral politics, including the creation of a party platform in 2020. In 2022, some of the most pitched battles were inside the party, between establishment Republicans and supporters of Mr. Trump’s style of politics.

Now those battles are poised to influence how the U.S. Congress operates over the next two years.

“The Republicans are just in a really difficult situation, because their margin is so small and this bloc is so determined,” said Edie Goldenberg, a professor emerita of political scientist at the University of Michigan. “They want to be able to stymie things if things are not going their way.”

The battle for Speaker offered the first opportunity to exercise that influence.

“This is an effort to wield as much power as they can possibly wield,” said Prof. Goldenberg.

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