Republican Matt Gaetz has maintained his opposition to Kevin McCarthy as speakerGetty Images

By the time the House of Representatives adjourned late on Wednesday after Republicans failed on their sixth attempt to elect a new speaker, tempers had flared, a chorus of booing had erupted, and gleeful Democrats munched popcorn as turmoil engulfed the other side of the aisle.

After two days of backroom dealings, Republicans and Democrats could not even agree on whether to call it a night – the knife-edge vote to adjourn prompted shouts and confusion. On CNN, an anchor pondered: “Is this normal?”

What should have been a straightforward vote for Republicans, who hold a majority in the lower chamber, has turned into a political drama that has paralysed the third branch of American government.

Wednesday was day two of the chaotic saga, as a group of hard-line Republicans refused repeatedly to support party leader Kevin McCarthy, denying him his long-coveted speaker position and bringing all other House business screeching to a halt.

“Well, it’s Groundhog Day. Again,” congresswoman Kat Cammack, a Florida Republican, said from the floor as she again nominated Mr McCarthy to lead the chamber.

Now the deadlock in the 118th Congress will drag on into Thursday – the longest vote for a speaker in a century.

Children are seen on the House floor during a vote

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Nappy changing

When the members of the House entered the chamber on Tuesday, there was a sense of celebration in the air.

The first day of a new Congress is typically a family affair. Parents, spouses and children crowded the chamber and surrounding hallways, hoping to see their loved ones take the oath of office.

For four-month-old Hodge Gomez, that meant meant naps and nappy changes in the US Capitol while his father, California Representative Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat, took part in the first rounds of ballots. Network cameras at one point captured a chubby-cheeked Hodge wriggling in a sling strapped to his father’s chest as the congressman cast his vote.

“He loved it,” Mr Gomez said.

But as the first ballot became a second, then a third, that initial enthusiasm faded. Members paced back and forth in the chamber, some letting their heads loll back over their chairs. Pennsylvania Democrat Madeline Dean handed out chocolate to a bored-looking Representative Larry Nadler.

Mr McCarthy sat placidly in his chair, managing to laugh ruefully amid the dysfunction around him.

‘It looks messy’

After a long night of negotiations, the lawmakers returned on Wednesday.

Speaking from the House floor to nominate Mr McCarthy, Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin attempted something of a pep talk, reminding his colleagues how lucky they were to be there.

“It looks messy,” he said. “But democracy is messy.”

Indeed, over the next nine hours and three roll-call votes, it kept looking messier.

Throughout the day, increasingly weary-looking Republicans navigated the chamber, gathering for huddles and increasingly animated debate as Democrats looked on.

Florida’s Matt Gaetz – a leader of the anti-McCarthy group – held court with as many as 15 Republicans at one time, including some of Mr McCarthy’s allies. At one point, he cornered Steve Scalise, Mr McCarthy’s deputy, gesticulating animatedly while Mr Scalise simply shook his head, covering his face with his hands.

“He’s a desperate guy,” Mr Gaetz said of Mr McCarthy. “I’m ready to vote all night, all week, all month and never for that person.”

The calm exterior that Mr McCarthy had managed to present a day earlier slipped slightly on Wednesday. Looking increasingly agitated, the California Republican fidgeted with his glasses, stared at his phone and left his seat repeatedly for discussions outside the chamber.

With each passing vote, tension seemed to build. In a speech nominating Mr McCarthy for a sixth ballot, Ms Cammack, the Florida Republican, claimed that Democrats had been drinking alcohol on the House floor, a baseless allegation that drew furious boos and shouts from the other side of the aisle.

Members of Congress on the House floor amid a vote for speaker

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As Democrats, the minority party, tried to put forward their leader, Hakeem Jeffries, for speaker, the Republican rebels countered by nominating another black congressman, Byron Donalds.

One of the Republican dissidents, Texas congressman Chip Roy, noted it was the first time in history that two African Americans had been nominated for the high office. Lawmakers from both parties rose to applaud.

But such flashes of bipartisanship were rare.

Some Democrats could not hide their delight at the Republican disarray. Several tweeted pictures of themselves bringing buckets of popcorn to the chamber floor. President Joe Biden, departing the White House for an event in Kentucky, described the congressional deadlock as “really embarrassing”.

Increasingly, too, there was a feeling of disbelief that a typically ceremonial vote had come to this. Each time a rebel Republican rose to nominate a challenger to McCarthy the sound of groans grew louder, as members prepared for another futile round of voting.

Despite all the horse-trading, little has changed. Mr McCarthy has vowed to keep fighting, meaning another day of political disarray is probably in store.

Additional reporting by Kayla Epstein in New York.

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