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Cutting Through Chaos: Electing the Next Speaker of the House

INTRODUCTION

Yesterday, the 118th Congress convened in Washington D.C. to conduct inaugural proceedings. Many of the 434 members-elect of the House of Representatives* expected normal starts to their new terms. They would first elect a speaker, then agree to rules and receive codified committee assignments. But, as last-minute squabbling over House Republicans’ de facto speaker candidate Kevin McCarthy implied, January 3rd, 2023 would prove to be no ordinary commencement.

Anti-status quo discontent is not new to the GOP’s ranks. From the “Radicals” of Abraham Lincoln’s era to the Gang of Seven and later the Tea Party of the 2010s, Republican power brokers have often had to reconcile the wishes of insurgent factions against their own. Sometimes, such as during postbellum Reconstruction, the upstarts’ policies came to define the the party. On other occasions, anti-establishment victories like the Freedom Caucus’s ouster of then-Speaker John Boehner or Eric Cantor’s 2014 primary loss did not eliminate “establishment” influence.

*The passing of Donald McEachin (D-VA04) leaves just 434 members-elect

MCCARTHY

Enter McCarthy, House Minority Leader from 2019 to 2023 and a member of Congress from California since 2007. Once considered a “young gun” along with then-future Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, McCarthy rose quickly through the leadership ranks himself, becoming Majority Leader just seven years after his initial election. He even ran to replace Boehner as speaker in 2015, dropping out after necessary support failed to materialize in the wake of a Benghazi gaffe.

With Ryan’s 2018 retirement and subsequent Democratic takeover of the House, the California native seemed to get a second lease on his political life. House Republicans’ hopes grew even more in 2020, when the party unexpectedly netted 14 seats despite President Donald Trump’s defeat. The election night silver lining left the GOP with 213 seats, just five short of an outright majority. 

Considering that alongside Republican momentum in the 2021 Virginia and New Jersey elections, it’s not hard to see why the GOP remained confident under McCarthy’s leadership despite clear blemishes like the January 6th incident. After all, how could Republicans blow the so-called “midterm curse” with unpopular Democratic President Joe Biden at the helm and such a favorable House picture to work with?

Most 2022 post-mortems trace the roots of the Republicans’ loss of momentum back to the June Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which eliminated constitutional protections for abortion rights in a mostly pro-choice country. By September, Democrats had taken a generic ballot lead and overperformed in a series of House special elections. The GOP did gain back ground in some pre-election polls, but underwhelmed pundit expectations on election night ㅡ winning just 222 House seats and coming up short in many swing districts.

Intraparty dissent with McCarthy’s leadership started to increase after the disappointing House election results. Moderates, mainstream conservatives, and right-wing populists alike launched recriminations and invectives at one another in an effort to find someone to blame for Republican shortcomings. Some pointed to Trump, Dobbs vs. Jackson, and the GOP’s rightward lurch. Others thought issues like border security and inflation hadn’t been stressed enough. Both groups tied their complaints to McCarthy for supposedly favoring certain factions of the House GOP in an effort to balance caucus’s interests.

But an objective look at McCarthy’s actions during the 117th Congress suggests that he often attempted to appease the Freedom Caucus, a group of anti-establishment conservative members that continues to be thorn in the Californian’s side. Consenting to the removal of Liz Cheney, later appointed Co-Chair of the Jan. 6th committee, as GOP Conference Chairwoman is an excellent example.*

*McCarthy also endorsed Harriet Hageman, Cheney’s successful Trump-endorsed primary challenger

The Freedom Caucus

But what exactly is the Freedom Caucus? The group of anti-establishment conservatives and right-wing populists started back in January 2015 as a catch-all for various Tea Party ideologues. Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, currently a McCarthy backer, served as the group’s first chairman. He summed up the conference’s purpose succinctly: to modulate House Republican leadership rightward while refusing to compromise conservative principles.

The group lived up to its goal early on. Then-Speaker John Boehner, who in the 1990s had joined Newt Gingrich and the Gang of Seven in blowing the lid off of a House Banking scandal that led to mass retirements and incriminations, found himself on the way out under Freedom Caucus pressure. Since 2015, the motley band of bomb throwers has steadily grown, creating headaches for the GOP establishment that President Trump’s 2016 election only exacerbated. As of the latest Congress, Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry records 54 members.

Negotiations and Compromises

While a significant portion of the Freedom Caucus stuck with McCarthy through yesterday’s votes, most of the eventual defectors still had ties to the group. There had been rumblings of dissatisfaction among some members of the House GOP’s far-right flank, like Florida’s Matt Gaetz and Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, ahead of the opening of the new Congress, but most in Washington assumed McCarthy would be able to negotiate his way to a majority anyway. 

Compromise he did, if fruitlessly. Adding to feuds over committee assignments and ideal policy approaches to hot-button issues like immigration and inflation, McCarthy consented at the last minute to Freedom Caucus demands for a motion to vacate contingent on just five members. The group had originally wanted a one member stipulation. But McCarthy’s choice to give his comparatively-small number of detractors undue influence over a potential no-confidence vote did not sit well with many members of the Mainstreet Coalition, some of whom question why leadership lets 10% of the caucus dictate terms for the remaining 90%. 

PROCEEDINGS

How is the Speaker Elected?

The process of electing the Speaker of the House begins with caucuses to determine Republican and Democratic standard bearers. For the opening of the 118th Congress they were California’s Kevin McCarthy (R) and New York’s Hakeem Jeffries (D). Should members wish to vote for someone else, they may back another party member or vote present (abstaining). Some Freedom Caucus Republicans took this option in supporting colleagues Andy Biggs and Jim Jordan yesterday.

Once the nominations are decided, a roll-call vote is held until a candidate wins an absolute majority of votes cast. A victor does not need to secure a majority of House members-elect, who may not vote or could be absent. Keep in mind that present votes (abstentions) reduce the majority threshold. When these conditions fail to be met, successive roll-call votes are repeated as long as necessary. Historically, winners have tended to secure majorities of total votes cast, as well as House membership, after only one round.

What Happened?

The tensions of a tumultuous 2022 election cycle culminated yesterday, when intraparty opposition to Republican Kevin McCarthy prevented his election as House Speaker on three successive ballots. A speaker election had not required more than one ballot since December 1923, almost a century ago. 

Democrat Hakeem Jeffries led the first ballot against McCarthy with a 212-203 plurality. Despite having a slim majority, enough Republicans from the party’s right flank defected to prevent an outright win. Of the 19 initial dissenters, ten voted for Arizona’s Andy Biggs, six for Ohio’s Jim Jordan, and three for other members. 

Eager to consolidate opposition on the second ballot, McCarthy enlisted Jordan, arguably one of the Freedom Caucus’s most well-known members, to nominate him before the chamber. Despite his efforts, Jordan could not convince his 19 colleagues ㅡ all of whom proceeded to vote for him for speaker despite his endorsement of McCarthy.

On the third ballot, conditions deteriorated even more for McCarthy. Florida’s Byron Donalds, who had backed him in both preceding rounds, defected to the Jordan camp, raising the number in opposition to 20. Perhaps fearful of more defections or wishing to rework the party strategy, Oklahoma’s Tom Cole motioned to adjourn until January 4th at noon.

What to Expect

There are effectively three possible outcomes for the current speaker election, which is already the 7th longest in U.S. history according to analyst Noah Rudnick. The first, highly uncertain but potentially the most probable of the three, would require McCarthy to convince 11 Jordan supporters from the 3rd round to support him. 9 members of the opposition would additionally have to vote present, abstentions which would reduce the number of total votes cast. McCarthy could be elected with 212 votes in this scenario, since victors do not need an absolute majority of all members-elect. Nancy Pelosi found herself in a similar situation after the 2021 vote.

Former President Trump, with whom McCarthy has often sided in the past, issued a hearty endorsement of the California lawmaker’s speaker bid this morning. Whether or not the former president’s public support is enough to clear up doubts among disaffected members will be an excellent test of his continuing influence over the GOP.

Assuming McCarthy and his vote-counters are unable to meet those requirements after the next few roll-call votes, a definite possibility following unclear signals from last night’s meeting between obstinate Freedom Caucus members and McCarthy, the GOP could be forced to seek a compromise candidate. Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana has been tossed around as a potential sub-in should McCarthy drop out. He would probably be the Republicans’ best chance to unite their mainstream and right-wing factions without doing further damage to the party’s national image.

If the 20 Republican detractors do not come to the negotiating table, even for someone like Scalise, moderate such as Nebraska’s Don Bacon have seriously suggested playing hard ball by either agreeing on a compromise candidate appealing to some Democrats or forming a coalition government with them. Both avenues could make Hakeem Jeffries Speaker of the House, a seemingly-unthinkable prospect to most Republicans. 

That said, this situation is probably still fairly unlikely even though a handful of House moderates could theoretically give Jeffries a majority. The 2024 primary ramifications for someone like Bacon may be be too high to justify endorsing a power sharing agreement with Democrats unless the election process drags out long enough to prevent effective governance. Jeffries, on the flip side, has showed predictably little interest in helping to elect McCarthy.

For context, the longest speaker election in history saw Nathaniel Banks win 103-100 after 133 ballots in 1855. It would be a true anomaly if this Congress’s process were to last that long, but nothing can be ruled out in American politics. Remember also that members-elect cannot be officially sworn into office until the new speaker is chosen, a true curveball for many in Washington.

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