WASHINGTON — What passed for business as usual in Congress, at least if you go back 164 years, crawled along on Thursday as the House ended an 11th vote for Representative Kevin McCarthy of California for speaker, with the results humiliating and largely the same: more than two dozen votes short.
There was little solace that the lawmakers had made history with the longest stretch of speaker votes since the 44 that were held in the Congress of 1859. Without a speaker, the House cannot convene and start official business, and restive lawmakers were once again left hanging in the balance.
“I’m never getting sworn in, am I?” Representative Mary Peltola, Democrat of Alaska, asked her followers on Twitter between rounds of votes on Thursday afternoon. She included a graphic saying she was “still waiting to be” in Congress.
Reporters, who have been swarming the Capitol since the voting began on Tuesday, were equally restive. With each passing day, they have become ever more eager for crumbs to help them divine who would become the speaker, and when.
So many of them crowded on Thursday outside the speaker’s suite of offices in the center of the Capitol that Mr. McCarthy had commandeered over the weekend — Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican and leading McCarthy foe, called him a “squatter” — that House staff members tried to corral reporters to wait in an informal rope line.
F.A.Q.: The Speakership Deadlock in the House
A historic impasse. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California is fighting to become House speaker, but a group of hard-right Republicans is blocking his bid and paralyzing the start of the new Congress. Here’s what to know:
Why is there a standoff? With Republicans holding a narrow margin in the House — 222 seats to Democrats’ 212 — Mr. McCarthy needs support from his party’s right wing to become speaker. But some far-right lawmakers have refused to back him, preventing Mr. McCarthy from getting to 218 votes.
Who are the detractors? The 20 House Republicans who are voting against Mr. McCarthy include some of the chamber’s most hard-right lawmakers. Most denied the results of the 2020 presidential election, and almost all are members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus.
What do they want? The right-wing rebellion against Mr. McCarthy is rooted not just in personal animosity, but also an ideological drive. The holdouts want to drastically limit the size, scope and reach of the federal government, and overhaul the way Congress works to make it easier to do so.
What can McCarthy do? Mr. McCarthy has made several concessions to try to win over the hard-liners, embracing measures that would weaken the speakership and that he had previously refused to support. But so far the concessions have not been enough to corral the votes he needs.
Is there an alternative to McCarthy? A big factor in Mr. McCarthy’s favor is that no viable candidate has emerged to challenge him, but Republicans could coalesce around someone else. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 Republican in the House, is seen by many as the most obvious backup.
How does this end? House precedent dictates that members continue to take successive votes until someone secures the majority to prevail. Until a speaker is chosen, the House is essentially a useless entity. It cannot pass laws or even swear in its members.
The 20 Republicans who have rejected Mr. McCarthy have been trying to bring attention to their cause, but they too seemed frustrated. When a reporter asked Representative Andrew Clyde, Republican of Georgia, whether Mr. McCarthy had made sufficient concessions to win their support, he snapped back, “None of your business!”
The spotlight has proved irresistible for others. As the seventh vote for speaker was underway on Thursday, Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, another Republican holding out against Mr. McCarthy, was being interviewed outside the House chamber on Fox News. Colleagues pleaded with him to break away from the cameras and vote, but he stayed put. Only once his time on air concluded did he run back to the floor to vote for Representative Byron Donalds, Republican of Florida.
Reporters were constantly chasing after lawmakers, and some pursuits grew perilous. At one point on Wednesday night, a handful of reporters trailing Mr. Gaetz nearly collided with a small pack following Representative Patrick T. McHenry, Republican of North Carolina. Jordain Carney, a Politico reporter, said on Twitter she had dislocated her kneecap in one of the media scrums.
The mood had evolved since Tuesday, when there was a jubilant cacophony of families assembled for the start of the 118th Congress. Lawmakers had their loved ones watching from the gallery above the House floor or had children beside them, waiting for the swearing-in and celebratory photos of the big day.
The families in the gallery diminished on Wednesday, when it seemed clear no oath of office would be administered and that there would be no photos with the speaker — whoever that might be — taken any time in the near future.
But the House floor was frenetic. Mr. Gaetz held animated conversations as Democrats and Republicans heckled each other during windy nominating speeches. A vote to adjourn for the evening erupted into shouting.
Some took advantage of the fray. Representative-elect George Santos, the incoming Republican from New York who was dogged by his lies about his background, was surrounded by reporters on Tuesday. He spent much of his time in the House chamber alone. But as attention shifted away from him on Wednesday, he started to chat more readily with his colleagues. By Thursday, he was sitting with some of Mr. Gaetz’s allies, who were apparently happy to welcome him into the fold.
Another advantage went to C-SPAN. With nobody in charge of the House, the cable network has faced few restrictions on what its cameras can broadcast. Instead of the usual wide shots, C-SPAN captured lawmakers negotiating, and the irritation, ire and awkwardness that often goes with it.
But by Thursday afternoon, meetings between the Republican leadership and the defectors had largely moved behind closed doors, meaning there was less action on the floor. Some small details stood out: Representative Lauren Underwood, an Illinois Democrat, returned from a break during the eighth ballot and was perplexed someone had taken the seat she had been reliably occupying for days. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an Iowa Republican, brought a gold football helmet to the floor.
Other members tried to make the votes more interesting. Mr. Gaetz broke from precedent by voting for former President Donald Trump. Representative Lauren Boebert, the Colorado Republican who is one of the most outspoken opponents of Mr. McCarthy, teased the room by saying during the eighth vote that she was changing her vote to a Kevin — Representative Kevin Hern of Oklahoma.
Emily Cochrane and Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.