Kevin McCarthy, the head of the Republican Party, is having trouble getting the 218 votes required to become the House speaker in January.
Only a small group of conservative rebels may prevent the California Republican from taking the speaker’s gavel at the beginning of the new Congress because voters this month gave the GOP a razor-thin majority. Numerous opponents of McCarthy have already stated they will never vote for him.
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., the chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, stated, “He doesn’t have the votes.” Denial is one of the phases of sorrow, thus there will likely be some denial before the stage of bargaining, where people are attempting to determine whether a candidate for a consensus will emerge.
McCarthy is now in a hazardous situation because he has gained his party’s candidacy for the speaker while still defending his political career.
If the conservatives don’t budge in this game of chicken and McCarthy won’t back down, it might lead to a chaotic floor brawl in which House members cast multiple votes for speaker, which hasn’t happened in a century.
Here are some further instances from history where winning the speaker’s gavel wasn’t simple.
On December 3, 1855, a new Congress convened, just like every other first day. At 12 o’clock, the House was called to order, and the speaker election was the first item on the agenda.
Yet there was no front-runner for the position. On the first ballot, votes were cast for twenty-one candidates, but none received the necessary majority. The Congressional Globe published the following day, “There was no choice.” That day, the House held three more failed votes for speaker before adjourning shortly after 2 p.m.
The House was deadlocked in the weeks that followed because no candidate could secure the required number of votes. Rep. Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts was elected speaker of the House on the 133rd ballot, defeating Rep. By a vote of 103 to 100, South Carolina’s William Aiken won.
Two months after the first speaker vote, on February 2, 1856, the event took place.
The House overwhelmingly approved a resolution that day praising the clerk for serving as speaker “during the laborious and protracted contest for Speaker.”
The last time the speaker vote involved multiple ballots was in 1923.
On December 4, 1923, the House convened, and Frederick Gillett ran for re-election as speaker. Since 1919, the Massachusetts Republican had filled the position, and his party had continued to hold the majority in the house.
But after the first ballot, Gillett did not have the votes needed. Three more votes were held and each time enough Progressive Republicans supported other candidates, blocking Gillett from regaining the gavel.
“Mr. Clerk, it seems entirely evident that no good purpose can be served by having another ballot tonight,” Republican leader Nicholas Longworth said on the floor before the chamber adjourned that night.
At issue were rule changes that Progressive Republicans wanted. For two days, the group refused to budge and on a few ballots, the Democrats’ nominee even led in the tally.
Longworth eventually struck a deal with the progressives and on the ninth ballot, Gillett was re-elected, speaker.
There have only been 14 instances in congressional history where it took more than two ballots for a nominee to get a majority. The first 13 happened before the Civil War.
“The Civil War established this norm … where the parties agreed to air their dirty laundry in caucus but then to coalesce around the party leader, whoever got a majority in caucus,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Charles Stewart, co-author of the book “Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government.”
2013: Conservatives plot coup against Boehner
In 2013, the tea party movement that had swept Ohio Republican John Boehner into the speaker’s office turned on Boehner himself.
A band of 20 conservative rebels — furious that Boehner had ousted some of them from committees and cut a fiscal deal that raised taxes on the wealthy — huddled in a Capitol Hill apartment the night before the speaker’s vote and plotted a coup against their own leader, according to author Tim Alberta’s book, “American Carnage.”
Among those in the room were Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, Alberta writes. Republicans had won 234 seats in the 2012 election; if 17 Republicans opposed Boehner, they argued, conservatives could prevent him from getting the 218 votes he needed to remain speaker.
But some suspected there were Boehner spies in the room, and the conservatives began pointing fingers at each other, according to Alberta. Labrador said they actually needed to secure 30 dissenters because Boehner would surely be able to flip some of those no votes, telling the group, “We need 30 to get to 17 because half of the people in this room are going to cave tomorrow.”
Labrador was right. When their names were called on the House floor the next day, some involved in the plot got cold feet and did not vote, vote present, or cast their ballot for Boehner. In the end, only 12 Republicans refused to support Boehner.
Two years later, Boehner suffered 25 GOP defections in the speaker vote — the largest number of defections in 100 years — but he would easily win the speaker’s gavel with 216 votes due to a number of members missing the vote; Democrats had attended the funeral of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and several other lawmakers couldn’t get to Washington due to bad weather.
After Rep. Mark Meadows, a conservative agitator filed a “motion to vacate the chair” that would have required the unpopular speaker to face yet another floor vote, Boehner announced his resignation in September 2015.
How Pelosi put down a rebellion in 2018
The minority leader will typically have an easy path to the speakership when a party regains the majority. But in 2018, Nancy Pelosi faced a backlash from a new generation of Democrats who wanted her to leave office after serving as a speaker for 16 years.
That year, during the week of Thanksgiving, 16 Democratic caucus rebels signed a letter declaring their disapproval of Pelosi as speaker. Democrats who did not sign the petition considered running against Pelosi for speaker.
“As we head toward the 116th Congress and reclaim our Democratic majority, we believe more strongly than ever that the time has come for new leadership in our caucus,” wrote the 16 Democrats, including Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Seth Moulton, D-Mass.
If her foes held the line, they would have enough votes to block her on the House floor. But Pelosi, who calls herself a “master” legislator and vote counter, was only getting started.
The first female House speaker started eliminating her rivals one by one. Rep. Marcia Fudge, one prospective rival, and Pelosi huddled in her office. Later, the Ohio Democrat would support Pelosi and be appointed chair of a committee that deals with elections. Rep. Brian Higgins of New York, a Democrat, was likewise won over by Pelosi’s promise to give priority to his Medicare plan and collaborate with him on infrastructure.
And by agreeing to a deal on term limits for the party’s top leaders, she won over a few holdouts, including Rep. Ryan, who ran against her in 2016.
In the end, 15 Democrats broke with Pelosi: a dozen voted for other people and three voted present. But it wasn’t enough to block her from serving a second time as speaker of the House.
“Every two years, we gather in this chamber for a sacred ritual,” she said upon accepting the gavel. “Under the dome of this temple of democracy, the Capitol of the United States, we renew the great American experiment.”