In a series of votes perceived as a rebuke to the party elite, Republicans prevented favorite Kevin McCarthy from becoming speaker of the House of Representatives, throwing the next US Congress into chaos.
The California congressman, who presides over House proceedings and is second in line to the president, only a simple majority to be chosen as Washington's top lawmaker.
However, in the first three rounds of voting, which were closely watched by US media networks, Republicans failed to elect a speaker for the first time in a century.
Instead of rejoicing in their newfound control of the House, the party is forced to engage in a protracted battle to choose a speaker, which risks escalating internal conflicts and jeopardizing McCarthy's political future.
The lower house, where the 57-year-old needed 218 votes, switched to a thin 222-212 Republican majority during the midterm elections last year.
He was stunned by 19 "no" votes from his side in each of the first two rounds, and that number increased to 20 in the third, since he had failed to persuade the party rebels, who included some prominent friends of the previous president Donald Trump.
The Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries defeated him in each of the first three rounds, but there is still the little question that a Republican will finally take the speaker's gavel.
McCarthy has long sought the position and withdrew from the running in 2015 due to many previous mistakes.
Even though he bowed to their demands to press for severe probes of Democrats, including President Joe Biden, after obtaining control of the House, he was once again caught off guard this time.
The Republicans were rapidly gathering momentum to regroup overnight, and devise a plan to transform a crushing loss into an improbable win that would save their face, so lawmakers decided to adjourn until Wednesday.
Before the session ended, Florida's Byron Donalds issued a statement stating that "Rep. Kevin McCarthy doesn't have the votes," calling party conference members to "recess and regroup" to find a solution.
The last time a new Congress speaker was chosen after more than one round of voting was in 1923, a century ago. In 1855, a speaker selection procedure required 133 vote rounds spread over two months.
McCarthy first intended to keep participants in the room and vote until he had succeeded to bully his adversaries into submission. McCarthy had been attempting to prevent little cliques from straying off the floor to undertake their discussions.
However, according to US media, several members and employees who were supporting McCarthy had said earlier in the day that he should resign if he didn't win the gavel in the second round.
The House is anticipated to take more votes beginning at noon (1700 GMT) on Wednesday until a candidate emerges with a majority; a new candidate who has not participated in the process might come to the fore.
According to common belief, McCarthy is not sufficiently committed to Trump, who is running for president once again after losing to Biden in 2020, which was a barrier to McCarthy's election.
By the time the session came to an end, no viable Republican challenger to McCarthy had arisen, though Steve Scalise, the new House majority leader and a McCarthyite who has made it known he has aspirations of his own, would be an obvious choice.
But Scalise will probably be seen by the "Never Kevin" brigade as more of the same.
McCarthy, who resisted a subpoena from the House committee looking into the attack on the Capitol in 2021, has already given the hardliners a guarantee that the FBI and CIA would be investigated in addition to the Biden family and administration..
There was some good news for the Republicans in Congress.
On Tuesday, the Senate also began its new session, and Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republican minority, broke the previous record for the longest tenure as Senate leader.
After the House adjourned Tuesday night, Trump wrote on Truth Social, "There is so much unneeded upheaval in the Republican party." He made a point of criticizing McConnell in particular for the splits, but he made no mention of McCarthy or the mayhem in the House.