Change is hard.
There is more potential for change in congressional leadership ranks at the end of this Congress than there has been in years.
A recent story about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speculated whether she would end her lengthy tenure later this year. What Pelosi decides to do impacts House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.
Pelosi’s fate may also hinge on whether Democrats still control the House — or if Republicans seize control. That brings the discussion to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
McCarthy aspires to become House speaker next year if Republicans flip the chamber.
However, it is possible McCarthy faces a tenuous path to the speaker’s suite — even if the GOP gains to control of the House.
McCarthy failed to become speaker in the fall of 2015 after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, retired in the middle of the Congress. The House Republican Conference was on the precipice of voting to select its nominee for Speaker — McCarthy — a few days after Boehner quit. However, McCarthy abruptly bowed out of the contest.
House Republicans descended into chaos. There was chatter about McCarthy’s personal life. McCarthy also declared on Fox that the reason GOPers created a select committee to probe Benghazi was just to derail a presidential bid by Hillary Clinton. Republicans believe McCarthy said the quiet part out loud — and revealed the GOP’s true motives behind investigating Benghazi.
Sources close to McCarthy say the California Republican could have prevailed, but no one was entirely sure. Fox was told that McCarthy’s “ceiling” for votes on the House floor was only 220.
McCarthy withdrew to fight another day. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., took the gavel. More than seven years later, McCarthy is again eyeing the Speaker’s suite.
The “220” vote ceiling for McCarthy in 2015 is key. As is said about most things on Capitol Hill, it is about the math, and McCarthy could not afford many defections in 2015.
The “220” is right on the edge.
The House dictates that the successful candidate for Speaker secures not just the most votes among all who run — but an absolute majority of the entire House.
In other words, if the House is constituted at a full 435 members when the new Congress convenes on January 3, 2023, McCarthy — or whoever prevails — needs 218 votes.
The “winner” just cannot cruise in with 210 votes, someone else with 200 and another candidate with 25 yeas. That is a plurality.
Today is looking at an absolute majority.
There have been three occasions in the past three-plus decades when the House has elected a Speaker with fewer than 218 votes. That is because the new Congress in those years began with less than 435 members. There were deaths. Members were absent and thus not a part of Congress because they had yet to be sworn-in. Some members quit or took other positions before the launch of the new Congress.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., won in 1997 with 216 votes. Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, won with 216 votes in 2015. Pelosi came out on top in 2021 with 216 supporters.
By contrast, late House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., won the speakership in 1991 with 262 votes. Pelosi commanded 255 votes in 2009.
McCarthy’s fate could hinge on how large a prospective GOP majority could be in 2023. Political observers have curbed expectations of a Republican tsunami for weeks now. If Republicans flip the House, it is possible they may have a majority of just 10-12 seats.
That is a better margin for error than Pelosi has right now: four seats. Some Freedom Caucus members could rebel and oppose McCarthy. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, challenged McCarthy for a leadership post a few years ago. However, McCarthy has now brought Jordan into his fold. The alliance with Jordan helps McCarthy dramatically.
GOP House hopeful Karoline Leavitt just won her primary in New Hampshire. McCarthy, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and others endorsed her opponent, Matt Mowers. Leavitt has criticized the Republican establishment in Washington. However, Leavitt notably dodged a question on Fox when asked if she would support McCarthy for Speaker.
That said, a number of more right-wing House candidates either lost their primaries or could lose the general election.
Additionally, McCarthy appears to be in the good graces of former President Trump.
McCarthy could face trouble if Trump ever sours on McCarthy.
However, there may be a way for McCarthy — or any lawmaker — to become speaker even if they do not have an outright majority of the House.
In 1849, the House voted dozens of times before finally electing Speaker Howell Cobb, D-Ga. No candidate could secure a majority of the entire House on ballot after ballot, so the House finally greased the skids for Cobb. The House passed a resolution declaring the House could choose its speaker based on a plurality — or the most votes. Cobb finally won on the 63rd ballot, 102-100. The House then took an additional vote to ratify Cobb as speaker. The House approved the ratification of Cobb by a simple majority.
House Speaker Nathaniel Banks, D-Mass., faced a similar problem in 1856. The House voted 129 times without any candidate marshaling an outright majority. Similarly, the House then approved a resolution which would allow the body to choose a speaker based on a simple majority. Banks finally succeeded, winning the plurality vote on the 133rd ballot, 103-100. Following the Cobb model, the House then conducted a separate vote to ratify Banks as Speaker.
No vote for House speaker has gone to a second ballot since 1923. Members finally elected Speaker Frederick Gillett, R-Mass., on the ninth ballot. Again, neither Gillett nor any other candidate could secure the outright majority. Gillett’s election marks the last time the House ever burned multiple ballots just to select a speaker. Gillet faced a challenge to the speakership from Rep. Henry Cooper, R-Wisc. Cooper blocked Gillett’s path to the Speaker’s suite until the Massachusetts Republican agreed to modify some procedures in the House. Gillett finally won with 215 votes out of a House casting 414 ballots — an outright majority.
Back to modern day, Republicans must win the House if this debate is even to be relevant. Pelosi insists this exercise is academic.
“How many times have I told you over the past year-and-a-half-plus that the Democrats would hold the House, despite some so-called ‘wisdom’ in Washington, D.C, saying that in the off-year, the president’s party always loses Congress or seats?” said Pelosi to reporters.
However, it will not be an academic exercise for McCarthy if he is in a position to pursue the speakership. Additionally, based on House precedent from the 19th Century, there is a way for McCarthy to claim the gavel — even if he does not secure an outright majority of the entire body.