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The Messy Speakership Battle to Come
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The Messy Speakership Battle to Come

Mystery candidates, McCarthy’s math, and how a compromise might emerge.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy makes calls to Republican House members asking for support of his bid to be the next speaker of the House. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Lawmakers are gearing up for a pitched battle in January over the House speakership and control of the chamber’s agenda. 

Different factions are contemplating outside-the-box nominees, and embattled GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy is trying to minimize dissent among Republicans.

“I’ll take the speaker’s fight to the floor,” McCarthy told reporters this week, adding that he will not drop out of the race and is willing to go through as many ballots as necessary. “At the end of the day, we’ll get there.”

But some moderate Republicans say they are talking with Democrats about what may happen if McCarthy can’t reach the threshold needed to win the speaker’s gavel. The speaker largely determines which legislation comes to the floor—it appears an unlikely outcome, but if a centrist coalition were to send a speaker to power, the chamber may take a more middle-of-the-road approach to bills. 

“The alternative would be a Republican that could get bipartisan support,” Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, told The Dispatch Thursday. Some Democrats have had conversations with Bacon about supporting a “Fred Upton type person” if McCarthy can’t get over the finish line, he said, referring to the retiring Michigan moderate.

Bacon has urged fellow Republicans to support McCarthy, but at least five far-right members have threatened to vote against him. That number may be enough to sink his candidacy. The GOP majority will be tight, with little room for dissent. And members organizing against McCarthy claimed this week there are more lawmakers opposed to him who haven’t yet shared their stances publicly. Their reasons for opposition range from demands to open up the legislative process to fears McCarthy won’t support impeaching President Joe Biden and some of his cabinet officials.

For now, the question is whether all the members who oppose McCarthy will both show up for the vote and vote for someone else on the floor. McCarthy needs a simple majority of all members voting for a candidate, so members merely voting “present” or not participating in the vote would lower the 218-vote threshold. Also important is whether every Democrat attends and votes.

The last time all 435 members were present and voted for a candidate in the speakership race was 2007, Emily Brooks of The Hill pointed out this week. Sickness, delayed flights, and other circumstances could decide the outcome of the race if McCarthy’s opposition doesn’t grow. If it does grow, the situation may get chaotic.

A speakership race hasn’t gone to more than one ballot in about a century. The longest contest came in 1855, when members held 133 votes over two months. The speakership vote is also different from most votes in the House these days: It’s one of the few times members take a lengthy roll call vote by voice, where each lawmaker announces their choice. That means leaders won’t get to have casual conversations with members to convince them to change their vote before the tally is final, as they can with electronic voting.

And there’s no narrowing down after the first ballot: The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service notes that candidates aren’t eliminated if they receive the fewest votes, for example. Members can vote for whomever they want in subsequent ballots until a speaker is chosen.

A group of Freedom Caucus members met with the House parliamentarian this week to learn more about the chamber’s rules for speakership votes, according to Politico. And some are talking about standing up a mystery candidate.

Rep. Ralph Norman, one of the Republicans who opposes McCarthy, said this week that the far-right lawmakers could nominate someone who isn’t even a member of the House: “It will be apparent in the coming weeks who that person will be, and I will tell you it will be interesting if everything plays out.” The speaker is not technically required to be a sitting lawmaker.

Rep. Ben Cline also said Friday morning that conservatives are having a “conversation” about potential non-member speakers, including Newt Gingrich, former President Donald Trump, and Lee Zeldin, who ran for New York governor this year.

Rep. Andy Biggs, a former chair of the Freedom Caucus, has said he plans to vote for himself. But he’s unlikely to garner enough support from the whole conference to win. Rep. Matt Gaetz, another McCarthy opponent, has at different points endorsed both Rep. Jim Jordan (who supports McCarthy) and Trump for the role.

Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, wrote Thursday that he expects McCarthy to win, but if neither he nor second-in-line Rep. Steve Scalise can pull it off, members wouldn’t elect a “bombthrower” like Jordan. Instead, they might rally around someone more low-key, like Rep. Patrick McHenry.

“In a choice situation like this, where tiny factions hold vetoes, once the ‘obvious’ candidates are rejected, the winning candidates will tend to be ideologically bland, interpersonally liked, and low on enemies,” Glassman said.

A lot of people could end up speaker once the chamber gets to a third ballot, he argued: McHenry, Elise Stefanik, Jim Banks, or even senior appropriator Tom Cole. 

But not Jordan—the crowd of House Freedom Caucus members and its allies get “to veto candidates, but it can’t get itself to the chair.”

McCarthy and his allies are projecting confidence, pointing out the lack of a clear alternative. And some centrist Democrats told The Dispatch Thursday night they expect the GOP to unify.

“My presumption has been that Mr. McCarthy is going to win,” said one moderate House Democrat who asked to speak anonymously. Bacon’s emergency plan to present a moderate option is more of a “hypothetical” and isn’t “anything that has real legs,” the member said.

Another said it would be “very difficult” to identify a candidate who could win support from moderate Democrats.

Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer had a simple prediction: “I’m sure they’ll work it out.”

Meanwhile

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.