When a new Congress gathers for the first time, as it will on Tuesday, a drama-free vote to elect the speaker of the House typically takes place. Not this time. While Rep. Kevin McCarthy, leader of the House Republicans, has made extraordinary concessions to those withholding their support, he still lacks a clear path to the top job.
Here’s what to expect.
The only requirement to become speaker is to receive the majority of all votes House members cast “for a person by name.” In fact, one need not even be a member of the House to become its speaker. While anyone can throw his hat in the ring, throughout American history only members of the House have held the top job.
When the House convenes there will be a roll call vote, where each member will be called upon in alphabetical order to vote for a candidate, vote “present,” or decline to vote. By rule, only the votes for candidates (i.e., votes for a person by name) count toward the total number of votes one must win a majority of to become speaker.
If all House members vote for candidates, then McCarthy will need 218 votes to win the speakership. Members who do not vote or vote “present” could lower this threshold. For example, Nancy Pelosi secured the speakership in 2021 with just 216 votes by convincing several opposing Democrats to vote “present.”
Given the current makeup of the House—222 Republicans, 212 Democrats, and one vacant seat (due to the death of Rep. A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat)—it will be exceedingly difficult for McCarthy to overcome five or more Republican votes for opposing candidates.
To overcome five such votes, McCarthy would need to benefit from Democratic absences, as Boehner did in 2015, or receive Democratic help, which is unlikely. There is only one case of cross-party voting in modern history. It’s unlikely to repeat, as the defector paid the steep price of losing all of his committee assignments.
If McCarthy is unable to secure the majority he needs by the initial roll call vote, the House will repeat the vote until he or someone else attains the requisite majority.
If more than one vote is required to select a speaker, it will be only the second such occurrence since the Civil War. The last time a speaker election went past the first ballot was a century ago in 1923. The frontrunner, Republican Frederick H. Gillett, secured victory on the ninth ballot only after making several concessions to a combative wing of his party.
This isn’t McCarthy’s first bid for the speakership. In 2015 he was poised to succeed the resigning John Boehner as speaker. However, following increasing pressure from members of the Republican Freedom Caucus and a careless statement about the House’s Benghazi investigation, McCarthy withdrew from the race at the very meeting he was widely expected to secure the Republican nomination. He said at the time that he was not the man to reconcile the fractious Republican majority and that the next speaker needed to be “a fresh face.”
This time around, McCarthy appears more determined. He won his party’s nomination for the speakership in November and has since brushed off criticisms reminiscent of his own 2015 remarks. That may not be enough.
Republicans have a much slimmer majority than they did in 2015, and McCarthy again faces opposition from members of the Freedom Caucus. Rep. Matt Gaetz and three caucus members—including Rep. Andy Biggs, who intends to challenge McCarthy for the speakership—have stated they will not vote for McCarthy. Another caucus member, Rep. Matthew Rosendale, declared he will vote for McCarthy only under “extreme circumstances.”
To become speaker, McCarthy will likely need to convince at least one of the currently opposed Republicans to vote for him, not vote, or vote “present.”
To that end, McCarthy offered significant concessions over the weekend, Punchbowl News reported. He offered to reinstate an old House rule that would allow any five representatives to call for a vote to oust him should he become speaker, and expressed willingness to end proxy voting and remote committee meetings, along with other pandemic-era regulations. Yet that doesn’t appear to be enough.
The Dark Horse Factor
It is important that McCarthy garners the required votes early, as multiple ballots often allow for unexpected candidates to emerge. In the final speaker election before the Civil War, the first ballot was split between the Democrat Thomas S. Bocock and the Republican John Sherman, with neither receiving the majority needed to win. As was customary, Sherman did not vote for himself. Instead, he cast the sole vote in favor of an unthreatening fellow Republican—a freshman congressman from New Jersey, William Pennington.
After nearly two months of bitter debate, Sherman proved incapable of brokering a deal to gain the speakership, and the unheralded Pennington replaced him as the Republican’s top candidate. On the 44th ballot, Pennington won the contest by a single vote, becoming the first and only freshman speaker since Henry Clay.
When many ballots are required, the selected speaker tends to be a compromise candidate. If the Republicans cannot come to an agreement, a handful of them could strike a deal with the Democrats to select a moderate Republican speaker or, possibly, a Democrat. McCarthy has warned against this possibility, advising Republicans, “If we don’t do this right, the Democrats can take the majority. If we play games on the floor, the Democrats could end up picking who the speaker is.”
Alternatively, Republicans can take advantage of a little-known quirk in the electoral process: Members can vote to change the rules, replacing the roll call with a secret ballot or, as in the 1855-56 speaker election, removing the requirement for an outright majority.
On the 133rd ballot, Nathaniel P. Banks won the contentious 1855–56 election with just 103 of the 214 votes cast for candidates after the exasperated and exhausted House members decided to end the recurring nightmare with a plurality vote.
Yet even rule changes do not remove the need for party unity. No change can be made without a majority of the House in favor, and Banks was the ultimate compromise candidate—serving terms as a Democrat, an Independent, and a Republican throughout his career.
McCarthy’s profile, to say the least, is quite a bit different. And so the new Congress, and this election for speaker, remains unusually unpredictable.