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U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy confers with Rep. Patrick McHenry in the House Chamber during another round of voting for a new Speaker of the House on the second day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Jan. 4.JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

A whisper in the ear of the hopelessly divided Congress: Cast an eye north to Pennsylvania – site of the drafting of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in the 18th century, regarded as a vital swing state in the 21st century – for a way out.

For here, the Republicans have a narrow two-seat majority in the state’s House of Representatives, a legislative chamber where the partisan winds blow with gale force. And here, the GOP lawmakers – many of whom possess the very same strident hard-right ideological profile as their cousins in Washington – ended their furious partisan battle for state House Speaker Tuesday when they settled on a Democrat to lead their chamber. And they did it with a 30-vote margin for Representative Mark Rozzi of Berks County, in east-central Pennsylvania. He promptly left his party so he could rule the fractious body with fairness.

That’s not going to happen 193 kilometres southeast of the capital of Harrisburg in Washington, but it does serve as a reminder of the truth in the aphorism of Bismarck that politics is the art of the possible.

But for now, House Republicans in the Capitol seem caught in an impossible impasse. The ballots roll on, the results change hardly at all. The political class read enormous meaning Wednesday into one lawmaker’s move from supporting the nomination of Representative Kevin McCarthy of California into voting “present.” It made no difference at all. The impasse seems primed to go on for an infinite amount of time.

Mr. McCarthy wants what he has wanted for years, affirmation of his desire to be Speaker. The GOP rebels want to punish Mr. McCarthy for political apostasy – though he’s a conservative, he doesn’t have the fervour, or the disdain for how Washington works, that is their calling card – and to install a radical in his place. Most Republican lawmakers want to be sworn in and want an agreement that will allow the party to move on to take up its political priorities. Capitol staff members want the deadlock to end before Jan. 13, when their pay will be suspended.

No one seems to be able to deliver the votes that would make any, or all, of that possible.

Nobody likes a political spectacle – a full-throated assault on the byways of the capital – more than former president Donald Trump, but even he has had enough. He’s had his problems with Mr. McCarthy, whom he didn’t think pressed hard enough the notion that the 2020 election was stolen. But after he urged his supporters to get behind Mr. McCarthy, one of his most loyal lawmakers, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, asked Mr. Trump Wednesday to call on Mr. McCarthy to withdraw.

Kevin McCarthy’s historic rebuff is (another) sign of American political chaos

Mr. Trump, who has a history of failing to heed entreaties from the Capitol, sided with Mr. McCarthy because he looked like a winner and he has found the Californian easy enough to intimidate and manipulate.

But right now, the one who is doing the intimidating and the manipulating is Mr. McCarthy, and it is getting him nowhere. In fact, it is backfiring; the objects of his appeals feel unduly pressed and have hardened their resistance. The grease of life in the Capitol is mutual respect, a common purpose and a reverence for the processes of legislation. The gears on the GOP side are sorely in need of oil.

Republicans are struggling to put a positive face on this debacle. Republican Representative Byron Donalds of Florida, one of the straw men whose name was put into nomination as a potential Speaker and thus a repository of the votes for the rebels, said the situation that unfolded Wednesday was “invigorating” because it stood as a symbol of how lawmakers could express their views without hesitation in an effort to “do things for the betterment of their constituents.”

Hardly anyone, though, believes that this spectacle is a demonstration of the strength of the American system.

Conservatives have shut down the government nine times since 1980 but this is the first occasion since 1923 that they have shut down their own legislative chamber. That time it took nine ballots for Republican Frederick Huntington Gillett of Massachusetts to prevail.

One of his successors, Democratic Speaker Thomas (Tip) O’Neill of Massachusetts had the strength and respect of his party colleagues to win them over even when they disagreed with him. The difference between Mr. McCarthy and Mr. O’Neill was captured by Edward Markey of Massachusetts, then a House member and now a Senator, in his eulogy for Mr. O’Neill, who died 29 years ago this week.

The occasion was the 1977 debate on Jimmy Carter’s natural-gas deregulation bill, and Mr. O’Neill needed every possible vote to get the measure approved. Mr. Markey resisted, and told the Speaker, “Tip, I’ve studied this issue and I really don’t think you’re right on this.”

Mr. O’Neill pressed further. Mr. Markey told his political mentor that “when you’re right, I’ll be with you.”

“Eddie, I don’t think you understand me,” Mr. O’Neill said. “When I’m right, I don’t need you.”

The tragedy of Mr. McCarthy is that he lacks the power, the flexibility, the persuasive skills and the personal relations that Mr. O’Neill and many Speakers before and after him possessed. And the tragedy of the House Republicans is that they do not have the courage, and the imagination, to do what their equally committed political cousins did in Pennsylvania this week.