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D.C. Download: Nevada House members cast 60 ballots before speaker finally elected

Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
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Happy New Year! The House of Representatives is ringing in 2023 with an episode of administrative dysfunction unseen since before the Civil War.

When the new Congress convened on Jan. 3, the House’s first task was to elect a speaker. By the end of the week, to the frustration of Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV), a hard-right minority was denying Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) the votes to ascend to the speakership, while Nevada’s Democrats looked on with a mix of schadenfreude and alarm.

Lawmakers also commemorated the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The marathon speaker vote

On Tuesday, House members of the 118th Congress gathered for the first time. The first item on their agenda? The election of a speaker to lead the body, then the passage of a rules package to govern the chamber for the next two years, and then the swearing-in of members.

Members mingled like it was the first day of school. Lawmakers’ children accompanied them to the chambers, with spouses, parents and siblings on hand for photos at the swearing-in. New members began to learn their way around the chamber and gave interviews to the press.

When they filed into the chamber, members of each party nominated their elected leaders – McCarthy, the new longtime majority leader, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the new minority leader. As expected, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus rose to nominate Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), a former chairman of the group, to the highest role in the House. 

For the first time in over 100 years, the leader of the majority party could not get to 218 votes, the majority of the chamber needed to become Speaker. And then it happened again. And again. And again after that.

When the dust had settled in the early hours of Saturday morning, McCarthy had finally won the speaker vote, 216-211, with the six holdouts voting present, lowering the threshold of votes needed to secure a majority. It took 14 failed ballots to get there, with Republican members nearly coming to blows on the last failed vote. 

Lawmakers’ family members had long since gone home, and the freshman retreat for new members had been canceled. The House remained speaker-less and rule-less, in a demonstration of dysfunction so profound that the thought of this House majority governing, much less setting up the chamber, seemed ill-fated.

But after midnight on Saturday, House Republicans finally got their wish. Amodei described the mood as “a relaxed calm after the Storm” over text.

McCarthy is working with a 222-212 majority – the same number of majority members former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Democrats began with in 2021.

Amodei, Nevada’s lone Republican in the House, voted for McCarthy each time.

“Nobody thought this was a first ballot proposition,” Amodei (R-NV) told me over text on Tuesday afternoon. “The dynamic is that 90 percent of the [House GOP] is not good with 10 percent telling them no.”

Democratic Reps. Dina Titus, Susie Lee and Steven Horsford voted for Jeffries on every ballot, as did the entire Democratic caucus.

Despite negotiations since Republicans won the 2022 midterms in the House in November, McCarthy, who has been chasing the speakership since 2015, when he was first derailed by the House Freedom Caucus, knew that the speakership was not locked up on Tuesday. 

Publicly, five members had dubbed themselves “Never Kevin,” and an additional group had made demands of the embattled leader, including Freedom Caucus representation on the influential Rules Committee, command of important subcommittee gavels, and a one-member threshold for triggering a motion to vacate the speaker. 

McCarthy gave in to most demands, but 20 members still held out against him, voting for others including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH). By Wednesday and into Thursday, the group had grown to 21.

“Recounts never seem to work out for Republicans,” Titus mused on Twitter.

But on Thursday night, the outlines of a deal between McCarthy and hardliners emerged — and the negotiating paid off on Friday, when 15 of the prior 21 flipped to vote for the Bakersfield Republican. But with McCarthy still four votes short of the gavel, the House adjourned until 10 p.m. Friday night, as negotiators continued their work.

When they returned, he fell one vote short of the total needed after a tense moment in which Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) voted "present." The House momentarily fell into chaos, as Republicans negotiated with Gaetz live, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) lunged at him and had to be held back, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) appeared to call Donald Trump on her cell phone to speak with holdouts. But on the next ballot, McCarthy emerged victorious.

The six holdouts were Reps. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Matt Gaetz (R-GA), Bob Good (R-GA), Matt Rosendale (R-MT), and Rep-elect. Eli Crane (R-AZ). 

The concessions reported include the one-vote motion to vacate threshold, which could severely limit McCarthy’s ability to govern the caucus given that he could see constant threats to his leadership; open amendments, which allow any member to propose and receive a vote on a spending bill; a 72-hour rule requiring bills are posted 72 hours before they come up for a vote, a vote on a term limits bill, and an apparent spending agreement, which includes committing to proposing a balanced budget over 10 years, and freezing spending at FY2022 levels (which would necessitate significant spending cuts across the budget), in order to balance the budget.

Such an agreement would likely set up intra-party showdowns over defense spending, which national security and defense hawks in the party want to increase, and over the debt limit, which must be raised or suspended by Sept. 30 lest Congress trigger a default. It would also put the House in direct opposition to the Democrat-controlled Senate and White House, setting up enormous spending battles and raising the risk of government shutdowns.

It was spending bills that ended former Speaker John Boehner’s career in 2015. The Ohio Republican had to work with Democrats to pass appropriations bills and avoid (further) government shutdowns, losing the support of the Freedom Caucus and the speakership in the process.

In texts, Amodei, though clearly frustrated with the hard-liners, said the concessions to provide open amendments, bring back the single member motion to vacate, and give the Freedom Caucus greater committee representation were OK with him. Open amendments, he said, would “let the floor be transparent and allow it to be more fully functional.”

Initially, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) had said he was demanding McCarthy shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling – though he has since walked that back, given that not meeting the deadline would lead to default rather than a shutdown, and said he meant a commitment to spending cuts.

“Bless Ralph,” Amodei said in a text Thursday. “I look forward to that vote [on the debt limit], and all the transparency it deserves. I do however find it ironic that a member of a deliberative body wants a commitment from a single (speaker) member with no process.”

On Friday night, he added that none of the concessions McCarthy had made concerned him, and that they were worth it in order to move forward.

House Democrats, meanwhile, began the week promoting themselves as the party in unison, watching Republicans flounder: “Grab your popcorn,” Lee told me on Tuesday. Several posted memes poking fun at the lengthy process, cheered loudly for Jeffries during votes, and laughed during Republican nominating speeches. But as the week has dragged on, frustration has begun to mount as well.

“Their disorder is yet another indication that they are not interested in governing for everyday Americans,” Horsford said in a Twitter video Wednesday. “The American people cannot wait any longer. We need to get back to work.” 

And Lee, who touts her bipartisan credentials frequently, said in a Thursday Twitter video that McCarthy’s willingness to give up anything for power was hurting the country.

“I’m not sitting there smiling,” Lee said. “I’m sitting there worried for the future of this country, and willing to work with Republicans once they demonstrate that they can work with themselves.”

In theory, some House Democrats could have voted present or not voted to bring the threshold down, delivering McCarthy the votes. And McCarthy, instead of negotiating with the far-right, could have worked with Democrats to get the necessary support in exchange for some measure of power sharing, such as more committee seats for Democrats. But either of those scenarios would have required McCarthy or Jeffries, who have no relationship, to trust one another – and potential ire from both of their bases. Democrats, Lee told me, had no interest in bailing Republicans out from a situation they believe McCarthy invited upon himself. “They can figure out their own mess,” she said.

The speaker election, besides holding up the House’s ability to debate and pass any legislation, had also left members in limbo given that they had not officially been sworn in. Several representatives-elect have said they are unable to process casework for their constituents because federal agencies will not work with them – or provide classified information – until they are officially sworn in. 

Spokespeople for Horsford and Lee said their offices have been able to proceed with casework. But Lee’s office said the IRS told caseworkers that their ability to receive updates on constituents’ cases is limited, and that staffers are worried that if this drags on past Jan. 13, congressional payday, committee staffers cannot be paid and caseworkers may run into challenges working with Social Security, Medicaid, and others, if no rules package has been adopted.

With the Speaker now in place and members sworn in, all offices will be able to process casework.

The Senate, meanwhile, elected Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as majority leader and minority leader, respectively, late last year, with little drama and no trouble.

A re-introduction to Nevada’s House delegation

Members of the House are still waiting to be sworn into office, but I figured the start of a new term was a perfect opportunity to remind readers of who our members of Congress are, how long they’ve been here, and how they’ve voted in that time. Let’s dive in.

Rep. Dina Titus

The dean of the delegation (meaning the longest-serving member), Titus served her first time in 2009, and, after a term on the sidelines, has served concurrently since 2013.

Geography: Titus’ district encompasses most of Las Vegas, including the Strip, as well as Henderson and Boulder City.

Number of terms: Seven (currently)

Before Congress: Professor of political science at UNLV and longtime Nevada Senate minority leader

Age: 72

Committee assignments: Titus has spent her entire tenure in Congress on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, among other assignments. If the House ever gets organized, she could become the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Aviation, as one of its longest-tenured members.

Partisanship: Using DW-NOMINATE, a political science measure that tracks partisanship based on a member’s votes, Titus has a score of -0.304, in which -1 is the most liberal and 1 is the most conservative. That makes Titus one of the more moderate Democrats in the past Congress. Over the last two years, she voted with the Democrats 99 percent of the time.

Bipartisanship index: Georgetown University’s Lugar Center tracks bipartisanship by measuring how often members of Congress co-sponsor bills by members of the other party and attract sponsors of the opposite party to their own bills. Titus ranks 132nd in the House for 2021, putting her in the top one-third.

Notable causes: Gun violence prevention, nuclear energy, disaster response, wild horse protection

Fun fact: Titus literally wrote the book on American atomic policy.

Rep. Mark Amodei

The Nevada delegation’s lone Republican, Amodei joined the lower chamber in 2011 as Northern Nevada’s representative.

Geography: Amodei’s district includes all of Northern Nevada, including Reno and Carson City.

Number of terms: Seven (currently)

Before Congress: Longtime member of the Nevada State Senate, lawyer, and president of the Nevada Mining Association

Age: 64

Committee assignments: Amodei is a long-standing member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, where he will legislate in the majority when (if?) Republicans organize the House. He uses his perch on the committee to focus on the Department of Interior.

Partisanship: Using DW-NOMINATE, a political science measure that tracks partisanship based on a member’s votes, Amodei has a score of 0.383, in which -1 is the most liberal and 1 is the most conservative. That makes him more conservative than any of Nevada’s House Democrats are liberal, but still relatively moderate for the Republican caucus. Over the past two years, he voted with Republicans 96 percent of the time.

Bipartisanship Index: Georgetown University’s Lugar Center tracks bipartisanship by measuring how often members of Congress co-sponsor bills by members of the other party and attract sponsors of the opposite party to their own bills. Amodei is among the most bipartisan members of Congress, ranking 32nd.

Notable causes: Land management, immigration

Fun fact: Amodei is a vintage car enthusiast.

Rep. Susie Lee

One of Congress’ most bipartisan members, Lee won a close re-election campaign and will now serve as a member of the minority for the first time.

Geography: Lee’s district is the area west and south of Las Vegas, stretching to Laughlin on the southwest border.

Number of terms: Three (currently)

Before Congress: Led a number of education nonprofits, including Las Vegas’ Inner-City Games after-school program

Age: 56

Committee assignments: Lee spent her last term on the Appropriations Committee, but as one of its shortest-tenured members, there’s no guarantee that she keeps it.

Partisanship: Using DW-NOMINATE, a political science measure that tracks partisanship based on a member’s votes, Lee has a score of -0.287, in which -1 is the most liberal and 1 is the most conservative. That makes her the most moderate member of Nevada’s House delegation. She votes with the Democrats 97 percent of the time.

Bipartisanship index: Georgetown University’s Lugar Center tracks bipartisanship by measuring how often members of Congress co-sponsor bills by members of the other party and attract sponsors of the opposite party to their own bills. Lee ranked 10th overall in 2021 – a measure she likes to tout.

Notable causes: Water conservation, education, workforce development, abortion rights

Fun fact: Lee was a competitive swimmer throughout her childhood and in college.

Rep. Steven Horsford

Now the leader of the influential Congressional Black Caucus, Horsford will have the ear of Democratic Party leaders this term.

Geography: Horsford’s district is in the central part of the state, including most of northern Clark County, Nye County, and White Pine County, among others.

Number of terms: Four (currently)

Before Congress: A former Nevada Senate majority leader, Horsford also worked at Vegas-based public affairs firm R&R Partners and led the job training program Culinary Training Academy. 

Age: 49

Committee assignments: Horsford spent last Congress on the Ways & Means and Budget Committees, and wants to remain on Ways & Means this term.

Partisanship: Using DW-NOMINATE, a political science measure that tracks partisanship based on a member’s votes, Horsford has a score of -0.35, in which -1 is the most liberal and 1 is the most conservative. That makes him the most left-wing member of the Nevada delegation in the House, but slightly more conservative than the average Democrat. He votes with Democrats 97 percent of the time.

Bipartisanship index: Georgetown University’s Lugar Center tracks bipartisanship by measuring how often members of Congress co-sponsor bills by members of the other party and attract sponsors of the opposite party to their own bills. Horsford ranked 251st overall in 2021 – the lowest rank of the House Nevadans.

Notable causes: Gun violence prevention, health care, workforce development, public safety

Fun fact: Horsford is the only first-generation Trinidadian-American in Congress – his mother is from Trinidad.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)’s handpicked successor, Cortez Masto just won another six years as Nevada’s senior senator.

Number of terms: Two (currently)

Before Congress: Cortez Masto’s career in Nevada public service includes serving as attorney general and as chief of staff for former Gov. Bob Miller.

Age: 58

Committee assignments: Cortez Masto sits on four committees (Finance; Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Energy and Natural Resources (ENR); Indian Affairs), and chairs a public lands subcommittee as part of her ENR responsibilities.

Partisanship: Using DW-NOMINATE, a political science measure that tracks partisanship based on a member’s votes, Horsford has a score of -0.362, in which -1 is the most liberal and 1 is the most conservative. That makes her the most liberal member of the entire Nevada delegation. She votes with the Democrats 98 percent of the time.

Bipartisanship index: Georgetown University’s Lugar Center tracks bipartisanship by measuring how often members of Congress co-sponsor bills by members of the other party and attract sponsors of the opposite party to their own bills. Cortez Masto ranked 34th among senators in 2021 – firmly in the top half.

Notable causes: Immigration, health care access, mental health, Native issues, renewable energy, water conservation, affordable housing, human trafficking

Fun fact: Cortez Masto met her husband, a former Secret Service agent, while they worked on coordinating the logistics of a trip for then-President Bill Clinton to Las Vegas.

Sen. Jacky Rosen

Rosen is in the final two years of her first Senate term, and is up for re-election in 2024.

Number of terms: One (currently)

Before Congress: Rosen was a computer programmer for several companies across Southern Nevada, and served one term in the House of Representatives.

Age: 65

Committee assignments: Rosen sat on more committees than any other Senate Democrat in the last term, with perches on the Committees on Armed Services; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; Commerce, Science and Transportation; Small Business and Entrepreneurship; Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; and the Special Committee on Aging. She chairs a tourism subcommittee.

Partisanship: Using DW-NOMINATE, a political science measure that tracks partisanship based on a member’s votes, Rosen has a score of -0.283, in which -1 is the most liberal and 1 is the most conservative. That makes her the most centrist member of the entire Nevada delegation. She votes with the Democrats 98 percent of the time.

Bipartisanship Index: Georgetown University’s Lugar Center tracks bipartisanship by measuring how often members of Congress co-sponsor bills by members of the other party and attract sponsors of the opposite party to their own bills. Rosen ranked 9th among senators in 2021 – a point of pride for her that she’s sure to campaign on.

Notable causes: Cybersecurity, tourism, maternal health, immigration, veterans’ issues, workforce development, affordable housing

Fun fact: During college, Rosen waited tables at Caesars Palace and was a member of the Culinary Union.

Nevada Democrats honor second anniversary of Jan. 6 insurrection

Friday was not just about the speakership vote – it was also the second anniversary of the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Nevada’s Democrats took the occasion to honor the bravery of Capitol Police on that day and recall their experiences.

In a statement, Cortez Masto said her thoughts are with the families of police officers who lost their lives as a result of the attack.

“January 6 reminded us that we must stand together as Democrats and Republicans to protect our democracy,” she said in a statement. “I appreciate the work of so many people in Nevada, from voters to election officials to poll observers, who have ensured our elections remain safe and secure. I’ll continue to fight for democracy and make sure our government works for Nevada.”

In a newsletter, Cortez Masto recounted her experience two years ago. As she was leaving her office to head to the Senate floor, she remembers seeing a police officer washing tear gas out of his eyes, telling her not to worry, and then running back to the Capitol steps to face the mob.

She described talking with colleagues after being moved to a secure location about the importance of certifying the election that same night. And she recounted the pain of learning just how many police officers suffered injuries, and hearing of the four who later died by suicide.

“On this hard anniversary for our nation, I remember the bravery of the police officers who help protect me and my colleagues every day,” she wrote. “Their dedication gives me hope.”

Horsford attended a memorial Friday on the Capitol steps led by Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). 

In a tweet, he touted the recent passage of the Electoral Count Reform Act to clarify that each state may only send one slate of electors, among other reforms, to combat the election challenges from 2020 and on Jan. 6.

“We passed reforms to the Electoral Count Act to safeguard our elections and ensure that their sacrifices need not happen again,” he wrote.

Rosen also took to Twitter to thank Capitol Police for risking their lives “to protect our democracy, our institutions, and our way of life,” she wrote. Reps. Lee and Titus tweeted similar messages.

Around the Capitol

  • Cortez Masto and Rosen sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking for the Nevada broadband map to be fixed, saying they were concerned that Nevada was getting inadequate federal resources because of flawed data.
  • Horsford spoke at a ceremonial swearing-in for the Congressional Black Caucus Tuesday, bringing his pastor, Nehemiah Ministries’ Rev. Kelcey West, to do the opening invocation. (I’ll have more on Horsford’s new role soon!)
  • In a moment of functionality in the upper chamber, Vice President Kamala Harris swore Cortez Masto in for her second term. 
  • On immigration, the Biden administration announced an expansion of both the legal pathway for migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti and the Title 42 program, which permits the federal government to immediately deport migrants who cross the border illegally under a public health advisory. The Supreme Court last month temporarily permitted Title 42 to continue while legal arguments are being prepared, and will hear oral arguments Mar. 1.
  • Both Sens. Cortez Masto and Rosen were answers in the New York Times crossword this week!

Notable and Quotable

“Well, nobody’s died yet.”

  • Rep. Mark Amodei, on the GOP mood on Thursday

The Week Ahead

The House will go about passing a rules package and committee rosters will be solidified. 

This article was updated at 11 a.m. on 1/7/23 to correct the geographical boundaries of Reps. Lee and Titus' districts.

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