WASHINGTON (AFP) – Better than Hollywood?
For the United States Congress the week began as a feel-good movie, turning into a slapstick farce and finally a taut political thriller.
The basic plot was simple: the election of a speaker in the House of Representatives – in normal times a routine formality – is sent off the rails by two dozen right-wing lawmakers-elect.
And from there it took quite a twist: House members would go on to vote 14 times in a row without electing their speaker – something not seen since the Civil War.
The fun and games started on Tuesday in a festive, back-to-school-like atmosphere.
The representatives elected in November’s midterms were on Capitol Hill to be sworn into office, many for the first time.
They had brought along family members, ready to applaud from the balcony when their loved one took the oath.
First though, under the rules, a House speaker had to be elected. Kevin McCarthy was expected to be voted in without much fuss, his Republican Party having regained control of the lower chamber with a narrow majority.
But a handful of diehards from the hard right of the party had other plans. They refused to back the Californian, accusing him variously of being too soft on Democrats, not sufficiently supportive of ex-president Donald Trump, or of lacking political convictions.
In one drawn-out ballot after another, McCarthy emerged short of the necessary majority.
As the impasse deepened, families took the opportunity to visit America’s capital. Some children clambered down to the floor of the House – but seemed resolutely bored by the unfolding drama.
Democrat Jimmy Gomez got a few laughs when he voted with his four-month-old baby, Hodge, hanging on his front in a sling.
On Thursday, it was a pet’s turn when Republican Nancy Mace voted with her dog Libby tucked under her arm.
The scene was quickly turning absurd.
Ordinarily, House sessions are governed by strict rules that prohibit things like dogs, the criticism of other elected officials, speculation about their motives, booing etc.
But these rules only come into force after the speaker has been voted in.
Republican Kat Cammack accused Democrats of bringing in “popcorn and blankets” to watch the infighting among their opponents.
Amid rising commotion, the House clerk, Cheryl Johnson insisted that order and decorum be maintained until the speaker is elected.
Her plea did little to sway the more boisterous lawmakers.
“I love it,” declared rebel Republican Lauren Boebert, for whom the chaos was a hallmark of a healthy democracy.
A growing number of officials started to show their exasperation however, as vote after vote failed to deliver a speaker.
With confusion reigning on the House floor, non-stop negotiations were churning backstage, with McCarthy offering concessions to try to pull the rebels into line.
On Friday morning, after yet another night of negotiations, some Republicans prayed at the foot of the rostrum – seemingly seeking a divine intervention to break the deadlock.
As the fourth day of voting got underway, McCarthy was seen leaving his seat, over and over, to rally fellow lawmakers in the galleries adjacent to the chamber.
His efforts seemed to be bearing fruit, with about 15 rebels falling into line.
But suddenly a late twist. When McCarthy unexpectedly lost the 14th round of voting late on Friday night, tempers frayed and there was even jostling in the chamber.
Then, soon after midnight, finally a happy ending of sorts. He won the next round, and was named speaker.