By the fourth House Speaker vote of the day on Thursday afternoon, Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland had finished reading The Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, USA Today and now, cozied up next to the fireplace outside the House chamber, he was flipping his way through the New York Times.
“You got anything to read?” he asked a reporter, maybe joking, but maybe not. “I’m just trying to find every paper that I can.”
At this point, there was not much else Democrats could do.
Democrats began the 118th Congress as spectators, watching the Republican majority descend into turmoil, plagued by disunity as a faction of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus repeatedly blocked Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from becoming speaker. But any initial schadenfreude at this point has dissolved into exasperation — and for a number of members, also concern, as the failure to elect a speaker means the entire legislative branch is stuck in limbo, with none of the House members officially sworn in.
“What number is this?” Ruppersberger said of the eighth roll call vote, as he, like many in the Capitol, started to lose track. “Whatever number it is, after awhile, it is like Groundhog Day — it makes no sense now. Let’s be big boys and girls, come together, use your four-, five-seat majority, and do what’s right for the American people.”
Each day, the same scene has played out on the House floor like a playlist stuck on repeat: The nominations for mostly the same people are made — in fact the House on Thursday broke a century-old record after completing the 10th round of House speaker nominations. McCarthy fails on every one of them. When it’s New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries’s turn to vote, and he votes for himself, Democrats who had been scrolling endlessly through their cellphones or had heads buried in newspapers suddenly erupt in standing ovations. They sit back down, continue quietly murmuring.
Sitting on a bench on the House grounds — taking a break after casting his vote for speaker for Jeffries for the seventh time — Virginia Democrat Gerald E. Connolly described Democrats’ feelings about the unending Republican joust as a “a certain duality, maybe”: “Bemusement at the fact that they’re as bad as we said they were — but not a lot of satisfaction in that, because there is this sense of the gravity of the moment.”
His Virginia Democratic colleague Jennifer Wexton, who’s been deep in New York Times crosswords all week, put it this way: “It’s gone from amusement to irritation pretty quickly,” she said.
The amusement was palpable among Democrats on Day 1 of the 118th Congress. Ted Lieu of California popped some popcorn. “About to go to the House floor,” he wrote on Twitter, as Republican infighting began in earnest. Fellow Californian Jared Huffman did an impersonation of viral internet character Leeroy Jenkins as he voted for Jeffries once again. By Wednesday Republican Kat Cammack (Fla.) was so irked by the Democratic mirth that she went to the House floor and accused them of drinking through the votes.
“They want us divided. They want us to fight each other,” Cammack said on the floor. “That much has been made clear by the popcorn and blankets and alcohol that is coming up over there.”
Democrats wanted her words taken down — a procedure to reprimand a lawmaker for breaking decorum — as they protested her accusation. But, since there’s no speaker, there aren’t really any rules, either. The clerk simply urged members to maintain decorum.
“If only!” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted in response to Cammack. “If Dems took a shot every time McCarthy lost a Republican, we’d all be unconscious by now.”
By Thursday, boredom was setting in.
“People are frustrated we’re just doing the same thing over and over and over again and making absolutely no progress,” said Democratic lawmaker Julia Brownley of California.
Democrats are somewhat of a captive audience at this point. Their complete unity in support of Jeffries — without a single defector — has left the speaker drama entirely out of their court, leaving Republicans to solve the mess themselves. But Democrats also can’t be sworn in or begin doing much of anything until Republicans figure it out.
Also, there is nowhere to escape.
“People are just trying to bide their time, walk back to their office, come back again, go to the cloakroom. Nobody can go that far away,” Brownley said.
For Joaquin Castro, a Democratic lawmaker from Texas, the mood seemed to be devolving into sadness. Is this what Congress has come to now? Is becoming spectators to the days-long standoff a preview of what Democrats’ life in the minority will be for the next two years? “They can’t even choose who’s going to lead them, much less agree on other important issues,” he said.
“Mr. Castro?” a House staffer called out to him, a bit loudly.
“Oh!” As if by instinct, he darted toward the House floor to vote for Jeffries for the eighth time.
False alarm. It wasn’t his turn yet, the staffer said — she just wanted him to be ready.
“Tell me when they call the C’s,” Castro said. In the meantime, he’d wait in the hall.