The Hitchhiker’s Guide to McCarthy’s bumpy road to the speaker’s suite

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has entered his second day of trying to nail down votes to becomes Speaker.

Some things to note: The House Republican Conference will hold a “candidate forum” early next week. Look to see if anyone announces a run against McCarthy. Note that there is a hotly contested race for whip among Reps. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Drew Ferguson, R-Ga. Also watch a race for the NRCC Chair.

Republicans will then hold their leadership elections during the middle of next week. The full House will vote for speaker when the new Congress convenes Jan. 3. The House can do nothing until it elects a speaker. The winning candidate must secure an outright majority of the entire House.

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This is about the math. And it underscores why a narrow majority is such a challenge for McCarthy. So, if the House is fully constituted at 435, McCarthy needs 218. McCarthy doesn’t win if he gets 216, the Democratic candidate gets 215 and someone else gets four votes. That is not an outright majority.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California speaks at an event Nov. 9, 2022, in Washington.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Since 1990, only three speakers have won a race with fewer than 218 votes. That’s because the House, as constituted on opening day, wasn’t at the full population of 435 members. The House elected former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., in 1997 with 216 votes. The House elected former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in 2015 with 216 votes. The House elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in 2021 with 216 votes.

McCarthy is going to have to secure a deal with the House Freedom Caucus to get its vote. The Freedom Caucus is demanding some control over what bills come to the floor, committee assignments for its members and commitments on reducing spending and tackling investigations.

The Freedom Caucus also wants to reintroduce a parliamentary gambit known as the “motion to vacate the chair.” This provision would allow any member — at any time — to call for a new vote for speaker in the middle of the Congress. This could be used as a threat to McCarthy: Do what we demand or face the consequences.

What happens if McCarthy lacks an outright majority?

It votes again and again for speaker.

No vote for House speaker has gone to a second ballot since 1923, when members finally elected Speaker Frederick Gillett, R-Mass. Gillett or no other candidate could secure the outright majority. Gillett faced a challenge to the speakership from Rep. Henry Cooper, R-Wis. Cooper blocked Gillett’s path to the speaker’s suite until the Massachusetts Republican agreed to modify some procedures in the House. Gillett won with 215 votes out of a House casting 414 ballots. That’s an outright majority.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Republican members criticize President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the close of the war in Afghanistan during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Aug. 31, 2021.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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. But 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 Bank, D-Mass., faced a similar problem in 1856. The House voted 129 times without any candidate marshaling an outright majority over a two-month period. Similarly, the House then approved a resolution that 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.

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Here’s the problem McCarthy had in 2015: Republicans didn’t view Boehner as terribly conservative. They felt the same about McCarthy. So Republicans looked for an excuse to leapfrog over McCarthy, finally settling on House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

In a perfect world for the Freedom Caucus, they might prefer Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, as majority leader. But such a scenario is not yet in the cards.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., attend a news conference July 21, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
(Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

One source told Fox McCarthy should hold a press conference and promise all of the specific bills and initiatives he would launch if he becomes speaker.

But the fact that McCarthy hasn’t done so yet indicates that negotiations are still ongoing. McCarthy may not be willing to commit to certain things. And, among the Freedom Caucus, McCarthy faces a number of what one Republican termed as “political arsonists.” In other words, they won’t support anything. They are only in Congress to set fire to things.

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McCarthy has a tricky road ahead.

And even if he becomes speaker, the question on Capitol Hill becomes for how long?