Axios Sneak Peek

The back of a propped up cardboard cut-out of the U.S. Capitol.

🎊 Welcome back to Sneak for the first time this year. We hope you're well-rested, because 2023 is starting off with a bang — let's dive in.

  • Smart Brevity™ count: 901 words ... 3.5 minutes.

🚨 Situational awareness: Former President Trump declined to say today whether he's sticking by his endorsement of House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy for speaker, telling NBC News: "We'll see what happens."

1 big thing: The ungovernable GOP

Kevin McCarthy

Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

For the first time in 100 years, the House of Representatives adjourned on its first day with no speaker, no new members sworn in, and no clear path to functioning as a governing body in the near future.

Why it matters: We've long known — and previewed — the perils of a narrow House GOP majority. But the scale of the challenge that emerged after the "red wave" faltered has never been more clear.

State of play: Three times, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) fell short of the 218 votes needed to become speaker, with 19 Republicans voting for alternative candidates on the first and second ballots.

  • On the third ballot, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) switched his vote from McCarthy to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — calling on the GOP conference to huddle and "come to a consensus" given that McCarthy "doesn't have the votes."
  • "Hard to overstate the psychological/optical blow of *losing* support on the third ballot when you desperately need things to be heading the opposite direction," Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman tweeted.

What's next: McCarthy and the rebels are both digging in, threatening to turn the speaker battle into a war of attrition when the House returns tomorrow at noon.

  • Asked how long he's willing to let this go on, leading anti-McCarthy Republican Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) told reporters this evening: "Six more months."
  • For McCarthy, withdrawing from the race is not on the table. But there's little else he can offer up in the spirit of compromise, given the raft of concessions he's already made.

Between the lines: Bloomberg opinion columnist Joshua Green traces today's crisis to the chaos blueprint perfected by Donald Trump.

  • "Unlike their Tea Party predecessors a decade ago who made life miserable — and short — for two previous Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, McCarthy’s enemies aren’t driven by a desire for aggressive conservative policy reforms," Green writes.
  • "They want to blow things up. They want McCarthy’s scalp. And the narrow Republican margin in the House makes it extremely difficult for anyone to stop them."

The big picture: Even if McCarthy gets through this somehow, he will be at the mercy of these rebels when it comes to getting anything done — including must-pass legislation like raising the debt ceiling.

  • With the full faith and credit of the United States on the line, House Republicans' game of chicken suddenly gets a lot more serious than one man's political career.

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2. 🍿 Dems' day of delight

Ted Lieu
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) mocks Republicans with a bag of popcorn before entering the House chamber Tuesday. Photo via Twitter

The party that lost the midterms has never had so much fun on swearing-in day, as House Democrats made no effort to hide their glee at Republicans' self-immolation in the speaker vote.

What's happening: "Today, Madam Clerk, House Democrats are united!" Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) declared to raucous applause in his first nominating speech for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).

  • Chants of "Hakeem" were raining down even after Jeffries' nomination on the third ballot, four hours into the session.
  • House Democrats' main super PAC blasted out a satirical press release that rattled off historical events (Yankee Stadium opens, the Hollywood sign is built) from the last time it took more than one ballot to elect a speaker: 1923.
  • “I shouldn’t be having fun, but I’m having fun,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told Axios' Stef Kight.
Pelosi blows a kiss from backbenches
Pelosi blows a kiss while voting for Jeffries for speaker. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Why it matters: Schadenfreude aside, Democrats' unity will be a potent asset in the post-Pelosi era — especially compared with the paralysis that gripped their Republican rivals from the moment they stepped into the majority.

  • Jeffries won 212 votes on all three ballots, making this the first time since 2007 — when Nancy Pelosi first became speaker — that every Democrat voted for their nominee.
  • If Democrats keep full attendance, the majority threshold for McCarthy to become speaker will remain at 218 votes — forcing him to win over at least 16 Republican rebels.

3. 💰 Cash can't buy McCarthy speakership

Data: Federal Election Commission; Chart: Axios Visuals

McCarthy's leadership PAC — dubbed the Majority Committee — has donated more than $300,000 to the campaigns of 17 of the 20 members who voted against him today, Axios' Lachlan Markay reports from FEC records.

  • Twelve of those members got cash from McCarthy's political operation during the 2022 cycle.

Why it matters: Even the usual means of political wheel-greasing couldn't beat back a first-in-a-century challenge to McCarthy's leadership of the new House GOP majority.

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4. 🏛️ Charted: Senate stability

Data: U.S. Senate; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Two milestones in the Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris swore in newly elected and incumbent senators today with little fanfare:

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) officially became the longest-serving leader in the chamber's history.
  • Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) became the first female president pro tempore in history.

What they're saying: Asked by HuffPost how it felt to be third in line to the presidency, Murray quipped: "Well, today I’m second, because Kevin McCarthy’s not speaker."

5. 🥱 Parting shot

George Santos
Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Rep.-elect George Santos (R-N.Y.), under investigation at the state, federal and even international level, yawns as he sits alone in the House chamber today.

📬 Thanks for reading tonight. This newsletter was edited by Zachary Basu and copy edited by Brad Bonhall.