YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Divided government and a divided GOP.
CHERYL JOHNSON, Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives: A speaker has not been elected.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Multiple rounds of votes over several days and there is still no speaker of the House.
REP. LAUREN BOEBERT (R-CO): We won't elect anyone who will actually unite the Republican Party, but Kevin McCarthy has proven he is not that person.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Republican Kevin McCarthy becomes the first person to repeatedly lose the speakers ballot in more than 100 years, but he is gaining ground after closed-door meetings, concessions, and compromise.
Meanwhile -- JOE BIDEN, U.S. President: We can work together, we can get things done, we can move the nation forward.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: President Biden enters this new time, a divided government, with a high-profile show of bipartisanship.
Plus, the nation marks two years since the Capitol attack, next.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Happy New Year and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK.
And this New Year has brought new problems to the nation's capital, the likes of which the country has not seen in more than a century.
At this hour, there is still no speaker of the House.
But after days of failed votes to electing the next speaker, Congressman Kevin McCarthy, long viewed as the favorite for the job, has mounted a comeback.
That comes after numerous closed-door meetings, concessions and compromises after.
After flipping several holdout votes, he is expressing optimism.
REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): I think you saw we made some very good progress.
We will come back tonight and I believe at that time we will have the votes to finish this once and for all.
It just reminds me of what my father told me, it's not how you start, it is how you finish.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: But there is still a small group of Republicans who continue to oppose him.
REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): You only earn the position of speaker of the House if you can get the votes.
Mr. McCarthy doesn't have the votes today.
He will not have the votes tomorrow.
And he will not have the votes next week, next month, next year.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Their numbers, though, however, are dwindling.
In all a week that was supposed to be formulaic has been anything but.
Heated arguments have broken out on the floor between GOP factions.
Lawmakers' children could be seen sleeping as votes dragged on.
House Democrats have called the chaotic start of the 118th Congress embarrassing.
REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY): First time in 100 years that there is no Congress.
It is embarrassing, it is dysfunctional, it is dangerous, it is stupid.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Joining me to discuss this tumultuous week of the Congressional infighting and inaction, Ali Vitali, Capitol Hill Correspondent for NBC News.
And with me here at the table, Yasmeen Abutaleb, White House Reporter for The Washington Post, Carl Hulse, Chief Washington Correspondent for The New York Times, and Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today.
So, Ali, you, of course, are on the Hill because you cannot go anywhere because this is not over.
The House is adjourned until 10:00 P.M. Now, Kevin McCarthy is starting to tell reporters that he thinks he has the votes to pull this out.
So, what is the latest on whether he can actually pull this out?
What do we know this hour?
ALI VITALI, Capitol Hill Correspondent, NBC News: Yes.
Yamiche, I think we live here now.
But the good news is that we think we are going to be able to move at some point tonight because the House is going to come back just a few hours from now in part because they needed to buy themselves some time for two Republican members, Ken Buck and Wesley Hunt, to actually make it back to Washington.
Both of them had prior commitments that meant they needed to be out of town.
They weren't part of the vote in Congress today.
Those were votes McCarthy desperately needed because you know well he needs every single yes that he can get as he still tries to get some of these six holdouts either to all vote present or some different permutation that gets some of them say yes and others of them either at no or voting present, which would change the number that he is ultimately hunting for.
We often talk about this magic number of 218.
That's a number that can change depending on the number of total members voting in each balloting round.
So, that's the other way that team McCarthy is trying to use these intervening hours of adjournment to get the votes that they actually need to finish this up.
Still, the conversations that I'm having with sources up here on the Hill is that this is basically a done deal, but we put that basically there because this process has been so tenuously held together by lengthy backroom negotiations.
Finally, those bore fruit today.
The open question is what it will look like around 10:00 P.M.
The thinking is it looks good for McCarthy but this has been process that's dragged on so long.
We will see it when we see it.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And, Ali, I mean, you talked about these backdoor negotiations.
What more do we know about the deals that McCarthy has struck, especially when it comes to flipping the number of people that he needs to possibly get the speakership?
ALI VITALI: So, part of the reason that they are trying to move so quickly on this, Yamiche, is, in part, because McCarthy's team feels they have the momentum here and they want to lock it up before the weekend.
The other part of it, though, is because some of these concessions could anger moderate members and when they get a look at the rules package, which I'm told they are going to try to vote on after midnight tonight, that is not necessarily something all of these moderate members are going to want to see.
Because the goal of these hard-line conservatives was to try to strip power away from the speaker and they were successful in being able to do that.
Perhaps the most important item here is a threat that is going to loom over Kevin McCarthy for his entire perspective term as speaker, which is the idea that one member of Congress could trigger the motion to vacate, effectively ousting the speaker.
And that's what Chip Roy, one of these hard-line conservatives who was a key part of these negotiations, says is a way to hold McCarthy accountable through the rest of the Congress.
But, look, there are looming fights ahead on just basic funding of the government, raising the debt ceiling.
That's nothing to say of increased funding to Ukraine.
All of these are key pieces that if moderates start thinking about what McCarthy gave away here, they might start getting upset.
But, look, this is what he needed to actually get these conservatives on board and become speaker in the first place.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And such important reporting from, of course, in the building where it is all happening.
And, Carl, I mean, the question that I've been asking myself all week is how in the world did Kevin McCarthy end up here?
Is it distrust, is it policy, do they just not like the guy?
What in the world happened here?
CARL HULSE, Chief Washington Correspondent, The New York Times: I mean, there are some people in the Republican conference there that just are accustomed to being opposed.
This is what they do.
They fight, they resist, they are angry at McCarthy for certain things, for sleights.
And they just want to turn the place upside down.
I think the interesting thing to me is, I was there myself all day, is that and a lot of people say Kevin McCarthy is going to win this, if he does win this, by basically having the stamina and the personality to sit there and be abused for a few days and not give up.
I mean, there were times when it really looked like he should step aside.
He had no choice.
But instead, he sat there and took it.
And so this weird staying power is going to lead to him, it looks like, getting the speakership.
At the same time, he really got strong backing from his potential rivals, not like Steve Scalise, Elise Stefanik, Patrick McHenry, people who could have been alternatives, but instead they worked to get him through.
McHenry negotiated this deal.
So, things had to go his way.
It really did not look good for him early in the week.
And tonight, the Republicans up there were really feeling pretty good about things, I would say.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And, Susan, I mean, it was just so tough to watch Kevin McCarthy sit there.
And as Carl put it, get abused, you could call it humiliated, I wonder what you make of this especially as you think about what comes next with the governing, with how this might be held over his head as speaker.
SUSAN PAGE, Washington Bureau Chief, USA Today: Yes.
Maybe the alternatives didn't want the job given the configurations he's going to have.
In 2019, Nancy Pelosi faced this really serious challenge to being elected speaker.
And she worked behind the scenes to make that work so that when they came out, she narrowly won the speakership on the first ballot, and in that way, did not suffer any damage to her reputation or power.
Kevin McCarthy has had given away the sword to his potential enemies and they will feel free to use it against him.
Do you think that he will survive?
A win is better than a loss.
Kudos if he makes this comeback and wins tonight, but do you think he will last two years in the job?
I'm not sure that he does.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I mean, it's a critical question to ask, how long is he going to last in his job.
And you got to the question I was going to ask you, which is you wrote the book, of course, on Nancy Pelosi.
I just cannot imagine Nancy Pelosi ever having this happen to her.
I remember when she was having this issue of whether or not other people were going to run against her and you had her both giving away nice stuff but she also had her leaking some opposition research on the people who wanted to be speaker.
She was not playing around.
SUSAN PAGE: Yes.
She gave carrots and sticks and she made it work, and she made it work behind closed doors.
And speakers don't always have the same sorts of power.
We've had speakers who were relatively not powerful but we had Newt Gingrich really amass power in the speaker's office and we had Nancy Pelosi increase that.
As Nancy Pelosi, as speaker, she called the shots for Democrats in the House.
That is not going to be the situation Kevin McCarthy is in.
He is going to get this job, a big job, in the line of succession for the presidency, but it is not going to be the kind of powerful job that we've seen, be in the past.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And, Yasmeen, the person who is looming over some of this is former President Donald, who we covered together, who you wrote a book about.
I'm interested in what you think about the fact that he wasn't able to move votes for Kevin McCarthy.
And then on the Senate side, he didn't want Mitch McConnell to be Senate minority leader and Mitch McConnell was able to get that.
So, what does it tell you about the power of Donald Trump or maybe the diminished power of Donald Trump?
YASMEEN ABUTALEB, White House Reporter, The Washington Post: And I think that's exactly what it is, Yamiche.
He was pretty much a non-player in this race.
He, early in the week, expressed Kevin McCarthy after McCarthy really sought out his support.
And you saw not a single one of the Republican lawmakers move because of his urging them to.
He put out his Truth Social post.
Again, that did not move anyone.
Now, we know that Trump has been on the phone trying to move three lawmakers so that Kevin McCarthy can lock this up tonight.
But the other remarkable thing is, after everything he said against Mitch McConnell, Mitch McConnell had kind of a good week compared to Kevin McCarthy.
He got to celebrate being the longest serving party leader in the Senate the same day Kevin McCarthy is suffering these kinds of humiliating defeats.
I don't remember which ballot we were on at that point McConnell goes out on the Senate floor and gives a speech commemorating that he's now the longest serving leader.
He goes to Kentucky to celebrate the bill putting towards this bridge that he's fought for for a long time.
So, it was this remarkable split screen and, of course, it's the complete opposite of what Donald Trump wanted.
So, I think that is really a testament to how much he just isn't a player in party politics, at least on the Hill at this moment.
SUSAN PAGE: That split screen was so remarkable.
It was like the adults on one side, the president and the Senate Republican leader working together, governors from both states, one a Democrat, one a Republican, on side, and the other side just mayhem on the floor of the House.
CARL HULSE: Yes.
The Senate Republicans were really happy with that contrast, let me tell you that.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I'm going to definitely ask about the split screen there because it was quite a split screen.
But, Ali, I want to talk to you about the thing that also was happening today, which is the second anniversary of the January 6th Capitol attack.
I can't believe it's been two years.
You told our producers very smartly that the same figures, the center of that, you think of Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan, that they are also at the center of this.
What does that say about where our country is, where the Republican Party is?
ALI VITALI: It's this collision of two major stories here, but it all has the same players in it.
At the center of the January 6th investigation, when you look at what the committee unearthed, it's that there were many willing participants within Congress who were helping Trump along the way.
And many of those names that the committee underscored in their report and talked about in their hearings are the same names that we've been talking about here during the speaker's battle who are on the conservative side of it but then also Kevin McCarthy at the center of it.
He is one of five Republicans who defied subpoenas from the January 6th committee.
He spoke with Trump on January 6th two years ago today only to go and meet with Trump at Mar-a-Lago and effectively normalize Trump within the Republican Party again, or at least be part of that renormalization process.
You also have the reality that Matt Gaetz, Andy Biggs, these are people who allegedly asked for pardons because of the things that they were talking about with the White House during those weeks before January 6th, Jim Jordan, another person who was one of those people the committee wanted to talk to, Scott Perry, head of the freedom caucus, someone who has been important up to this point during these speaker negotiations and who certainly will be in point because of the position that his caucus has now solidified for itself within these important committees.
He is someone who was working to install Jeffrey Clark atop the Department of Justice during the lead up to January 6th.
So, all of these figures are so central here and I think it is really important for us to underscore the fact that many of these people have solidified their power within this new Congress here.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Carl, jump in here.
I mean, also know that these are the same people.
And what does it mean that Kevin McCarthy has given away so much to these people?
CARL HULSE: It's a prescription for conflict, right, not only among Republicans, among themselves, and Republicans and Democrats in the House, but Republicans in the House and Republicans in the Senate.
So, what has happened is in these pretty arcane rules that we are talking about is the way the House operates.
The freedom caucus, the conservatives want more influence, they want more committee spots, they want more opportunity to offer amendments on the floor.
And listen, all parties have tried this in the past.
We are going to open up the amendment process, everybody can open up and have an amendment.
It doesn't work.
You have a 435 people, you give everybody an amendment, they get very politically charged amendments.
I mean, I do think they are making a lot of promises that either they're going to have to renege on at some point to do basic business or they're just going to grind everything to a halt.
I think it's going to be an extremely difficult to years.
And this week was sort of just the preview.
SUSAN PAGE: And Democrats were having a very good time this week just sitting there looking very disciplined while the Republican side melted down, but this is bad news for Democrats too.
It's bad news when you actually have to do the business of governing.
And while President Biden I think was not displeased to have this display, it is bad news for him too as you go forward this year and have to do something, like raise the debt ceiling.
CARL HULSE: I actually thought that Biden should have been a little more forceful, to tell you the truth.
He just said it was embarrassing.
Listen, this is Biden's problem too.
I don't know how he could -- he couldn't do much about it but I thought he was a little dismissive and I think it can be a really big problem for him going forward.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Especially as a reminder, Yasmeen, that like because this House speaker has not been elected, there can be nothing else really going on.
We don't actually have House members right now.
We have member-elects, which is just, in some ways, mind-boggling.
I want to, though, ask you about President Biden.
He had January 6th, he awarded medals, presidential citizen's medals to people who were integral in helping our democracy get through this.
What is your sense of how Biden sees this day but also, of course, the chaos that's going on?
YASMEEN ABUTALEB: Well, it's, of course, shape so much of his presidency.
I mean, January 6th was also all about stopping the certification of his election.
He came into office with this as sort of the foreground of how he was going to govern and he's given several speeches since he's been in office about the threats to American democracy.
He gave a speech right before the midterm elections basically begging people to respect the results of the election and respect the process.
So, I mean -- and we know this is what motivated him to run in the first place, was President Trump at the time in 2017 saying there were very fine people on both sides in Charlottesville when a woman was killed.
So, this has shaped so much of his presidency.
It's going to be the reason, as we expect, that he is going to run again in 2024.
And I think actually to Carl's point, this is going to make his job extremely difficult.
There are basic things they need to get done that they're probably not going to be able to get done or are going to be just exceptionally challenging.
But I also think the White House sees this as a good foil for them heading into another campaign.
This is why we don't want to elect Republicans.
Any Republican you elect is going to do this.
Then it is about more than just Donald Trump, I think.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Yes.
And one of the things that we've talked about, and I want to bring it up and talk about a little bit more, is that with all this chaos in the lower chamber, in the upper chamber, that would be the Senate, the spirit has been one of cooperation, surprisingly.
This week, President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell traveled to McConnell's native, Kentucky, to tout the bipartisan infrastructure act passed last year and the benefits of working across the aisle.
BIDEN: We disagree on a lot of things but here is what matters, he is a man of his word.
He is willing to find common ground to get things done for the country.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): We all know these are really partisan times but I always feel no matter who gets elected, once it is all over, we ought to look for things we can agree on and try to do those.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: So, Yasmeen, this is the person that you are covering every day, President Biden.
What was going into the president's thinking?
Take us a little bit behind the scenes about why the White House thought this was a good idea and what they think this might, in some ways, lead to down the line.
YASMEEN ABUTALEB: I think the timing could not have worked out better for them.
I don't know that they expected the backdrop to be quite that much of a split screen.
But there are a couple of elements to this.
One is that President Biden and Mitch McConnell actually like each other.
Even though they disagree on most of things, they actually have a long relationship and they like each other and they are both from this era where Republicans and Democrats try to get things done together.
And so I think for them, I know from Mitch McConnell's side, the bridge, nothing was more symbolic of crumbling infrastructure in the U.S. and he could tout this.
And I think also for both of them, they are trying to show, look, we can still work together, we can still get things done.
Look at this clown show.
For people who are reasonable, actually, the two parties can still come together and we know that they had been looking for some time for some type of event, some type of bill where they could showcase bipartisanship and try to show people that Congress and the presidency could still function together.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And, Ali, I want to come to you.
What is your sense of why this term was important to both of these sides, especially as you are up on the Hill?
I wonder if House members, if they can even think about the other chamber, what they have been saying.
ALI VITALI: Certainly, nobody was talking about Mitch McConnell if they were thinking about him.
But I think that Yasmeen is right, that the goal for Biden and McConnell, both, is to show that this can still work.
Biden is still, in many ways, the same man who served in the Senate for decades, a creature of Congress.
It's something that he regularly talked about on the campaign trail.
So, this makes a lot of sense.
I do think as we look at the next few months and certainly the next two years, we are going to see two very different theories of how to be a Republican in the post-Trump era coming out of Congress, based on which chamber you are looking at.
Mitch McConnell had a very different lesson that he learned from these midterms than Kevin McCarthy did.
McConnell's lesson was the chaos did not work and he was using chaos as a stand in both for Trump and also for the literal word, chaos.
What McCarthy and House Republicans are doing this week only underscores the idea that they are going to represent messiness and dysfunction even as they try to spin it as this just being the way that they are going to move forward on a path to governing.
So, this is, I think, what it's going to be for the next two years, showcasing two entirely different versions of Republicanism in Washington.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And it is such a good point.
And, Carl, I have to ask, what do you think Mitch McConnell gets out of this?
In some ways, it makes sense what President Biden gets out of it.
What's McConnell -- CARL HULSE: I will say first that nothing brings politicians together like hundreds of millions of dollars for public works projects.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: You mean pork?
CARL HULSE: Yes.
Mitch McConnell is -- he would not like me saying this but he is nearing the end of his career.
And I think Mitch McConnell is in legacy building-mode and he wants to be seen as somebody who was able to work across party lines.
He also was famously in the past a big person directing a lot of money to Kentucky.
He helped Biden a lot these last two years.
They got some legislation done.
They supported Ukraine together.
But I think that Mitch McConnell just really relished this moment, what was going on in the House and Trump not having much influence, and here is Mitch McConnell and the president and several other senators celebrating, they are celebrating their work together.
It was really something.
I did a piece on the last time that the House had this big long drawn out vote 100 years ago and it was eerily similar.
The Senate also then basically saw what the House was doing, immediately recessed and left town and let the House carry on.
So, it's basically a great parallel.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Wow.
I was going to ask you about the history of this.
Are there any parallels that you want to point out when you think about sort of time that we're living in the then-1923?
CARL HULSE: Well, the interesting thing was the fight was sort of about the same thing.
It was about progressive Republicans at that time trying to get more power, they wanted to offer more amendments, wanted more committee slots.
I said there's a lot that has happened in 100 years but Congress is kind of the same.
It's just I want my share.
SUSAN PAGE: There's a battle underway for the soul of the Republican Party.
It's been underway for some time.
President Trump, when he won election, defined the Republican Party in a new way and it's really been the face of the party since then.
But this next presidential election is going to be a battle that will play out the same forces that we see playing out in the House this week.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: It's such an important point.
And I wanted to ask you, do you think that there is any chance we get big bills?
We are looking already at the idea of government shutdowns and raising the debt ceiling.
But I wonder, do you think there is any chance that we get the sort of big bills that Biden and McConnell were touting?
SUSAN PAGE: No.
I mean, I think if we are lucky, we will fund the government and raise the debt ceiling.
But the idea that some of the big legislation that has passed in the past two years can make it through this House, I think, is unlikely.
CARL HULSE: I agree with that.
I mean, we will be lucky if we don't have a default on the federal government.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Is that what you are hearing from White House sources too?
YASMEEN ABUTALEB: Absolutely.
I mean, they've been worried from before November that if House Republicans took control, the budgets would be a really big deal.
And, of course, that's why you saw the White House and the Senate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, wanting an omnibus at the end of December to fund the government for a full year as opposed to bring this up again in two months because of exactly what we are seeing play out this week.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And, Ali, in the last 30 seconds we have here, tell us a little bit about what is coming up on your side of Pennsylvania Avenue here.
ALI VITALI: Hopefully, they do their work tonight.
That is the goal of team McCarthy.
They think that they are there, though they can't quite explain how they will get there.
I think part of the reason that we don't have that answer yet is because many of these six holdouts love the drama.
They want to be able to do it on the floor.
And so that's what we are waiting to see.
This story, as it has all week, unfolding in real-time for all of us together.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, certainly a story that we will continue to follow.
I'm sure we will have at some point a House speaker.
Until then, we'll have member-elects, and people waiting, including those sleeping babies.
But until then, thank you so much for joining all of us.
Of course, this was a lively discussion, of course, with analysis and history.
So, thank you so much.
Thanks to our panelists for joining us and for your excellent reporting.
And tune in Saturday to PBS News Weekend.
They will have a look at Pakistan's recovery efforts following last year's devastating floods.
I am Yamiche Alcindor.
Good night from a wild Washington that's going to be up for a while.