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Reporters Notebook: Vantage of the House's historic stalemate

Tom Shortell
Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., addresses reporters in the Capitol Building on Jan. 3, 2023, ahead of the House speaker vote.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Just as the old saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” as there is a wealth of information contained within any tome, news stories often have far more to say than one headline might be able to share.

With that in mind, this is another installment of Reporter's Notebook, an occasional series that will offer deeper looks into recent news articles by the LehighValleyNews.com staff.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Last Tuesday, I had a bird's eye view of American history.

From my perch in Seat 80 of the House Press Gallery, I had the opportunity to watch members-elect of the U.S. House of Representatives fail to select a new speaker three times.

Over the week, that historic moment has become old hat. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy finally was elected House speaker on the 15th ballot early Saturday, overcoming his own Republican holdouts to gain the House gavel and allow members to get to work.

But with the House unable to progress during my stay, much of my plans for two days in the nation's capital were similarly stymied. Instead, here are some behind-the-scenes takeaways from my time on Capitol Hill.

  • Last Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives started trying to elect a new speaker
  • By Friday evening, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had lost 14 ballots but won on a 15th ballot after midnight
  • Even routine occurrences such as member-elects' swearing in were stymied by the deadlock

Upon getting my credentials Tuesday morning, I was ushered to the House's basement, where reporters were lined up more than 250 feet for an opportunity to grab a few precious minutes with Republican members-elect.

The big story was whether McCarthy would be able to persuade Rep. Scott Perry and other members of the Freedom Caucus to support his bid. I grabbed a spot toward the back of the line.

It soon became clear McCarthy didn't have the numbers. I spotted a gaggle of reporters surrounding a woman wearing a Congressional pin 30 feet away and hustled over. She was telling journalists about the fury some mainstream Republicans were feeling toward the holdouts and the demands they were making.

"I think that we have to make a choice today," she said. "Are we going to be the party of the radical two percent?"

Every reporter in that hall was waiting to hear something like that. There was just one problem — I didn't know who was speaking.

I eventually was able to identify the woman as Rep. Kat Cammack, who represents Florida's 3rd Congressional District in north-central Florida. She drew bigger headlines Wednesday by trolling Democrats, accusing them of bringing "popcorn and blankets and alcohol" onto the House floor to celebrate the disunity among their Republican colleagues.

But on Tuesday, I earned a whole new respect for the reporters who regularly cover the House. They need to be able to quickly identify 435 politicians from across the country. Don't forget, those faces change every two years — sometimes sooner.

I was seated in the back reaches of the House News Gallery, high above the rostrum. From my perspective, I could not see the clerk call the votes, but I had a good view of the floor. I found it interesting that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the public face of the Democratic Party's left wing, periodically checked in with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of the Republican holdouts and in many ways Ocasio-Cortez's right-wing foil.

By the middle of the second speaker ballot, much of the energy from the earlier proceedings had faded. It didn't take long before it became clear the holdouts were not seeking a symbolic victory and would quickly return to the fold. Everyone was in for a long day.

I spotted Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Georgia, yawn. McCarthy continued to smile through most of the ballot, likely aware of the cameras.

"I think that we have to make a choice today. Are we going to be the party of the radical two percent?"
U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Florida

By the third round of votes, a headache was pounding away at my temples. I looked around and realized about half the reporters in my row had the same distant look in their eyes and their head in their hands. It was the look of people who were weighing whether it was the politicians casting the same votes over and over again who had made a mistake, or whether it was them, for coming to observe it for hours on end.

I don't know how evident it was to the folks at home watching on C-SPAN, but there was a fair amount of families on the House floor Tuesday to watch their loved ones take the oath of office. Before the voting, one member flitted across the House floor carrying his toddler grandson, who seemed understandably uncertain of the whole event but was rocking a bowtie all the same. During the vote, many Democrats enlisted their children to help cast their votes for Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

Of course, none of those members were sworn in on Tuesday. Many of their families likely could not extend their stays or decided not to because of the indefinite gridlock the speaker battle became.

Several people remarked how disappointing it must have been to make it through the campaigns, through the attack ads, through the election and then miss out on the ability to celebrate it.

I didn't expect any Charlie Dent references during my trip. After all, the Lehigh Valley's former congressman has been out of office for nearly five years. But he managed to come up twice during my visit.

The first came about an hour before the first round of voting for speaker of the House. McCarthy was short of the votes he needed, and his plan to get them appeared to be applying political pressure on the holdouts. Sam Chen, Dent's former campaign manager, didn't think it would go well.

At the time, I don't know if anyone expected this stalemate to extend into a fourth day of voting. But Chen's insights look prescient now. McCarthy twisted in the wind until a 15th ballot extended into Saturday morning.

The second mention of Dent came during my interview with Rep. Susan Wild on Wednesday morning.

Her office was decorated with knickknacks from across the Lehigh Valley — pennants from all of the colleges and universities in her new district, a pair of model Mack trucks, a Musikfest poster, a Sam Adams plaque signed by founder Jim Koch.

The District 7 map in her waiting room hadn't been updated to reflect redistricting; staff said it was in the works. But Wild hadn't been sworn in yet, so technically it was accurate.

The most unusual item, though, was hanging in her office. It was a painting by Pam Dent, Charlie Dent's wife, featuring sunflowers and a crying nesting doll. It's clearly a statement about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though I'm ignorant of the second figure's identity.

Tom Shortell
Rep. Susan Wild said this painting in her office was made by Pam Dent, the wife of her predecessor, former Rep. Charlie Dent.

When I snapped photos of Wild for the story, she hoped Pam Dent would see where she placed the painting. It probably helps that Wild, a Democrat, and Charlie Dent, a Republican, never ran against each other, but the two have mentioned their mutual respect for each other before, and it appears genuine.