It was exactly 100 years ago when the House of Representatives last failed to elect a House speaker on the first ballot. By all appearances, we’re likely to see this rare occurrence happen again tomorrow. The New York Times reported over the weekend:
The election of the House speaker on the floor of the chamber is usually a largely ceremonial exercise devoid of surprises. But if Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, is unable to put down a rebellion among a group of hard-right lawmakers before the vote on Tuesday, the result could be a whirl of chaos not seen on the House floor in a century. Mr. McCarthy has pledged to fight for the speakership on the House floor until the very end, even if it requires lawmakers to vote more than once.
This a story with several moving parts, so let’s flesh out what’s up.
Wasn’t it a foregone conclusion that McCarthy would become speaker?
He certainly thought so. McCarthy has been the House Republicans’ leader for the last four years, and when the GOP won just enough seats in the midterm elections to claim a majority, he expected to get a promotion.
And now that promotion is in jeopardy?
Evidently so. Almost immediately after the midterms, a small-but-significant conservative contingent within the House Republican conference said McCarthy simply wasn’t a reliable enough ally, and the members of the faction got to work undermining him.
How many votes does McCarthy need?
That’s a little trickier than you might assume. There are 434 members of the House — Rep. Donald McEachin passed away after the midterms — and to get elected speaker, someone needs a majority. As a matter of arithmetic, that suggests McCarthy — or anyone else vying for the job — would need 218 votes.
But it might become more complicated than that. If one member were to miss the vote for any reason, the next speaker would need a majority of 433. If another member were to vote “present,” the next speaker would need a majority of 432, and so on.
How big is the GOP’s anti-McCarthy contingent?
The incumbent minority leader can lose no more than four of his own members, and headed into the holidays, five House Republicans — Arizona’s Andy Biggs, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, Virginia’s Bob Good, South Carolina’s Ralph Norman, and Montana’s Matthew Rosendale — said they’ll oppose McCarthy’s bid. Complicating matters, the group declared that they intend to vote as a bloc, preventing party leaders from trying to pick them off, one by one.
Making matters worse for McCarthy is the faction appears to be growing, not shrinking. Yesterday, a group of nine conservatives released a written statement saying they’d heard the GOP leader’s latest pitch — and it wasn’t good enough for them. Note, these nine skeptics are on top of the five aforementioned “Never Kevin” members.
What do McCarthy's detractors want?
Many simply want a different leader, but for others, there's a substantive dimension to this.
At the start of every Congress, the House adopts a package of procedural rules that govern how the chamber will operate for the next two years. The package is generally overlooked, but far-right Republicans have focused heavily on it in recent weeks, seeing it as a key vehicle to give them more power.
With this in mind, McCarthy’s intra-party opponents have made several demands, including an emphasis on something called the motion to vacate the chair.
I have no idea what that means.
In practical terms, the motion to vacate the chair allows House members to oust their own sitting speaker — or at least try to — by way of a vote that effectively serves as a no-confidence vote. McCarthy said for weeks that he wouldn’t give in on this point, because he didn’t want that sword hanging over his head for the next two years, putting him in constant jeopardy.
I get the sense there’s a “but” coming.
But yesterday, McCarthy caved, telling his members that he now supports a new rule that would empower five of his own members to force a no-confidence in their leader.
Did that work?
Apparently not. None of the five “Never Kevin” members has budged, and the nine additional skeptics issued their letter after McCarthy endorsed changes that would weaken him.
Politico added this morning, “We caught up Sunday with one of the GOP fence-sitters, a member who has been in the room for these negotiations. And he told us that some of these undecided members won’t support McCarthy — even if he gives them everything they want.“
So, is McCarthy a goner?
It’s a little too soon to say for sure, though his odds of success went from bad to worse over the weekend. If the vote were right now, McCarthy would definitely fall short of the support he needs, but funny things can happen on Capitol Hill over the course of 24 hours, and the would-be speaker is so desperate, there’s no telling what he might offer his Republican detractors, or how they might respond.
That said, Punchbowl News reported this morning that even McCarthy’s close allies privately worry that it’s “hard to see a path” for him, at least as things currently stand.
As he begs for votes, isn’t McCarthy undermining his own capacity to lead?
Yes. He’s creating conditions in which he’d be a weak speaker, but he's doing it anyway, apparently because he values the title more than he values his capacity to lead the institution.
Does the party have a plan B?
Not really. Biggs is running for the gavel, but no one seriously believes he’ll become speaker. Roll Call reported late last week, however, on a provocative possibility: “The plan, which would only be deployed if the speaker’s election went to multiple ballots with no one budging, would be for a significant bloc of Republicans to work with Democrats to nominate retiring Michigan GOP Rep. Fred Upton for speaker. ... The member said the long-shot effort to elect Upton would involve giving Democrats concessions on House rules, like subpoena powers for committees, and other assurances Republicans probably ideally don’t want to grant.”
Is this scenario realistic?
It seems like a stretch, but at this point, anything’s possible.
Aside from the palace intrigue, why should folks care about this?
Because the public needs a functioning House — and ideally, a majority party capable of governing. If the GOP struggles to elect a speaker, it would represent a new level of Republican chaos.
Brendan Buck, a consultant who previously worked for Republican Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner, wrote in The New York Times today, “If Republicans are unable to muster the votes for a speaker, it will make very clear from the outset they cannot be counted on to fulfill the body’s basic responsibilities.”
Let’s say McCarthy comes up short tomorrow. Then what?
That would be the first ballot, making a second ballot necessary. If no one secures a majority on the second ballot, either, then there’d be a third, and so on.
McCarthy has said he intends to keep trying, as long as it takes, but no one can say with confidence how long his own allies will remain behind him. It seems likely that at some point, if McCarthy’s GOP opponents won’t budge, rank-and-file Republicans will start taking alternative solutions more seriously.
Politico had a good report a few weeks ago, noting that votes for speaker happen before the rules are adopted, “meaning the vote operates outside of the chamber’s standard operating procedures.” In other words, the House approves a set of rules as to how the chamber will function at the start of a new Congress, but that vote happens after the House speaker is chosen.
If members struggle to choose a speaker, the rules governing the House can’t be approved, and the institution is simply stuck until the matter is resolved.
Watch this space.