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Will Kevin McCarthy be Speaker of the House next year?

| Friday, December 2, 2022

Despite pre-election predictions of a “red wave” that didn’t manifest at the polls, Republicans will emerge from the midterms with only a slight majority in the House of Representatives. Based on the latest reports, it appears that the GOP will only enjoy a 5-seat majority in the House. President Biden joins the list of exceptions to the historic rule that a president’s first midterm election is a disaster. With an average seat loss of 28 since World War II and 45 for the last 4 Democratic presidents, the president’s situation is much more positive than some anticipated.  

Still, even with a relatively good outcome, Biden and Democrats should expect gridlock as a Republican-controlled House will stonewall their agenda. Even with a slim majority, Republicans can disrupt the Democrats’ goals by stalling legislation, conducting hearings and more. One major factor in how a GOP majority will affect the Biden administration is the leadership on both sides of the aisle. On the Democratic side, we’re already seeing major departures as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced they would not seek leadership positions in the coming term. With that, a new generation of Democratic leaders will usher in an era of new leadership for the Democratic caucus. 

A key question is whether the notably toxic relationship between Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Pelosi will spill over into the new Democratic torchbearers. That assumes, though, that McCarthy will himself remain in leadership. His caucus did vote to endorse him as Speaker of the House, the most powerful position in the chamber. However, with a vote tally of 188-31 and a challenge from protest candidate Representative Andy Biggs (R-AZ), McCarthy’s path to the speakership is anything but certain.

Most people likely think that you need at least 218 votes, or half of the chamber, to be elected Speaker. However, the process is slightly more nuanced. It’s true that you need a majority of votes for the speakership, but that majority is based only on the number of votes cast “for a person by name.” This means that only votes for specific individuals are considered in the calculations. If a representative doesn’t vote or simply votes “present,” their vote doesn’t go towards the majority necessary to be Speaker. For example, if 8 of the 435 representatives don’t vote for an actual person (which happened in 2021), then you actually need 214 votes for the speakership. 

With these rules in mind, the concern for McCarthy isn’t that he failed to receive 218 votes among his party members. There’s a precedent for not receiving a majority in your conference but still being elected Speaker in the official House vote. In 2015, former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was nominated with 200 votes before garnering 236 votes on the House floor. In 2019, Speaker Pelosi earned 203 votes in the Democratic caucus’s internal vote that expanded to 220 on the House floor. The issue for McCarthy, though, is that he doesn’t enjoy the substantial majorities that Ryan and Pelosi had for their elections. 

Assuming every representative votes for an individual, McCarthy can only afford to lose 4 votes before his speakership chances are in jeopardy. Unfortunately for him, 5 Republican representatives have already publicly announced they won’t be voting for McCarthy: Biggs, Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Bob Good (R-VA), Ralph Norman (R-SC), and Matt Rosendale (R-MT). Even worse, an additional 15 Republicans have voiced privately that they won’t vote for the current Republican leader. On that basis alone, McCarthy can’t be Speaker. If these 20 Republicans don’t vote or vote “present,” McCarthy would need 208 votes to be Speaker, which is 6 less than if the other 202 Republicans voted for him. 

If McCarthy can’t secure his speakership prior to the official vote in January, it would throw the House into turmoil. It’d be the first time since 1923 that a vote for speaker consisted of multiple ballots. Over the course of two days and nine ballots, then-Speaker Frederick Gillett (R-MA) struck a deal with Progressive Republicans to secure his re-election as Speaker. A similar situation could be repeated in 2023. Members of the House Freedom Caucus have expressed interest in changing House rules and procedures in exchange for their support of McCarthy. 

An unlikely, although possible, scenario is that Democrats manage to elect their own nominee for Speaker despite a GOP majority. With 213 seats, Democrats only need 11 Republicans to abstain from voting before they have enough votes themselves to elect a Speaker. Even some moderate Republicans could break from the party line and join the Democrats. McCarthy has recently warned about this potential outcome as a way to galvanize votes among Republicans.

Even if McCarthy becomes Speaker, as top Republicans project despite the mathematical hurdles in the way, the question remains whether he can control the Republican caucus. With a narrow majority and a substantial number of representatives spewing undemocratic, extremist beliefs such as election denial and conspiracy theories, it’s unclear if McCarthy can keep his party focused on a clear agenda. A McCarthy speakership would be defined by constantly balancing the Trump and moderate wings of his roster.  

We won’t know who the Speaker will be until January when the new Congress is in session. Until then, though, we can rest assured that the race for Speaker will be as interesting as it is uncertain.

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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