Updated January 6, 2023 at 11:34 PM ET

Republican leader Kevin McCarthy's protracted fight for the speaker's gavel remains in limbo as he still remains just shy of the votes needed to lead the chamber.

McCarthy has engaged in negotiations for days with a small but critical group of far right conservative lawmakers who made extended demands for concessions that would essentially make it easier to depose a speaker and weaken the powers of the speaker's office to drive the legislative agenda and assign committee posts.

Progress for McCarthy was slow earlier in the week, but the California Republican gained momentum in a Friday afternoon vote when 14 of his 20 detractors flipped to vote for him after four days and 12 rounds of balloting.

McCarthy projected confidence ahead of a planned 14th round of voting late Friday night, pledging to reporters: "We're going to get it done tonight."

But then McCarthy failed once again to reach the threshold needed to assume the gavel. McCarthy needs a majority of all members voting to win the gavel, which can fluctuate depending on who shows up. Of 432 votes cast, McCarthy had 216.

Democrats voted for Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

At least two McCarthy supporters, Ken Buck of Colorado and Wesley Hunt of Texas, traveled back to Washington, D.C., to cast their votes Friday evening after missing votes earlier in the day for personal reasons back in their districts.

Republicans Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida, two strong critics of McCarthy, voted "present" in the final vote, thereby lowering the threshold needed to secure the speakership. But it wasn't enough as four other Republicans voted for someone else. McCarthy either needed another member to vote present or for someone to flip to an affirmative vote.

After the final votes were cast, McCarthy walked to the back of the chamber and appeared to push Gaetz and Boebert, who were seated next to each other, to change their minds. Other Republicans swarmed Gaetz and engaged in seemingly heated discussions after McCarthy walked away.

The concessions McCarthy offered during the course of negotiations included making it easier to oust the speaker, an agreement to institute a 72-hour window for members to read bills before they get a vote, and a pledge to vote on legislation to institute term limits for members of Congress.

"I think I can speak for generally all of us: It is the framework of an agreement in good faith that allows us to keep moving forward," Pennsylvania Republican Scott Perry, a leading McCarthy critic, told reporters after the 12th ballot in which he voted in favor of McCarthy for the first time.

Along with Perry, the McCarthy holdouts who flipped in his favor on the 12th ballot included: Dan Bishop of North Carolina, Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma, Michael Cloud, Chip Roy and Keith Self of Texas, Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Byron Donalds and Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Mary Miller of Illinois, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Andy Ogles of Tennessee and Victoria Spartz of Indiana. Republican Andy Harris of Maryland joined them on the 13th ballot.

The relief in the chamber was palpable as each dissenter shifted their support in favor of McCarthy, with Republicans bursting into applause and offering standing ovations to their colleagues who moved the needle closer to resolution.

Making history

The high-stakes impasse is historic: it is the first time in a century that an election of a House speaker took multiple ballots to complete. The longest vote in U.S. history took place in 1855, lasting 133 rounds over two months.

The drama of not electing a speaker has very real consequences. The House cannot conduct any business, including swearing in new members, until a speaker is chosen.

Without a speaker, lawmakers can't form committees, advance legislation, or participate in intelligence briefings.

On Wednesday, a group of House Republican veterans held a news conference on the speaker standoff, which they referred to as being held hostage.

"This group has now managed to kind of snatch defeat from the jaws of victory - and the victory was this Republican majority," said Florida Republican Michael Waltz, referring to the group of Republicans who did not support McCarthy. "There's negotiations and then there's holding the rest of us hostage and 20 don't get to do that to 201 [members-elect]."

On Friday, the White House emphasized it was eager for the House to resolve the speaker stalemate soon, but downplayed the impact to national security.

"We have vehicles to continue to communicate with both chambers of Congress, and that communication will continue throughout the foreseeable future," said John Kirby, spokesman for the White House national security council. "There's no particular worry or concern that national security will be put at significant risk here."

The impasse likely foreshadows the chaos expected during the next two years of divided government on Capitol Hill, where Republicans hold a very narrow majority and the conservative Freedom Caucus has shown its willingness to hold the rest of the Republican conference hostage to its demands.

In the shadow of attack on U.S. Capitol

Friday's standoff coincides with the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, when supporters of then-President Trump breached the building with the aim of stopping Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election in favor of Joe Biden.

The anniversary comes just weeks after the House committee investigating the attack concluded its investigation and released its full report. In it, they recommend the Ethics Committee investigate McCarthy for his refusal to comply with the panel's investigation.

Many of the House Republicans who spurred on gridlock of the speaker elections this week were supportive of Trump's effort to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential election. The fact that Trump's endorsement of McCarthy--which he reiterated on Wednesday--did not shift significant support from those members suggested the former president's influence over them is waning.

California Democrat Pete Aguilar mentioned the attack during his speech Friday night after nominating Democrat Hakeem Jeffries for speaker.

"If we are forced to be here this evening because of the chaos and crisis on the other side, it's only fair to point out, Madam Clerk, that the same individuals who fanned the flames of Jan. 6, who told their followers and their followers' followers that they needed to fight back, and who challenged the swearing in of members based on a bogus claim of fake electors may well be in charge of the People's House, if they can ever agree on who can lead them," Aguilar said.

Three Democrats introduced a resolution to federally recognize Jan. 6 as "Democracy Day," encouraging state and local governments and civil groups to engage in pro-democracy programs and activities. It was sponsored by Democrats Dan Goldman of New York, Dean Phillips of Minnesota, and Jason Crow of Colorado.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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