After a week of negotiations with a handful of opponents, Rep. Kevin McCarthy finally appears poised to become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Bakersfield Republican’s unusually drawn-out and public fight to claim the gavel has raised questions among many Californians about the way the speaker is selected and why it took Republicans so long to settle on McCarthy. Some are simply wondering what the fuss is all about.
Here’s a brief explanation of what the speaker does and why events played out as they did over the last several days.
Why would anyone want to be speaker?
This question is particularly apt, given that the Republicans’ slim majority — currently 10 seats — will enable small factions in the caucus to wield enormous influence, similar to the power Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) exerted over the razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate in 2021-22. That’s bound to cause headaches for the guy holding the gavel.
Still, the job has its perks. Under House rules, the speaker oversees the chamber’s business, deciding when to convene, assigning bills to committees and presiding over debates. But beyond the administrative side of the job, the speaker holds enormous power over the body’s agenda. Perhaps most important is the speaker’s control of the Rules Committee, which decides which bills come to the floor and what amendments can be offered.
The speaker also sets the tone for the House, as shown memorably when the combative Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) replaced the genial Tom Foley (D-Wash.) as speaker in 1995. Although the speaker is supposed to preside over the chamber in an even-handed way, that hasn’t stopped the people filling the job from aggressively advancing their party’s agenda — and raising enormous sums of money for candidates.
What does it take to become speaker?
The Constitution has little to say on this issue: Article 1, Section 5 simply states that “the House of Representatives shall chuse (sic) their Speaker and other Officers.” There’s no requirement that a speaker be a member of the House, though that’s always been the case.
The House’s practice is to elect a speaker as the first order of business in a new Congress, with the office going to whomever receives a majority of the votes cast on the House floor. With a current total of 434 House members, it takes 218 to win if they all cast a vote. The fewer members who are present and voting, the fewer votes it will take to rack up 50% plus one.
Because a majority is required, not a plurality, the speaker’s gavel has always been won by a member of the party holding the majority of House seats. Representatives are allowed to cross party lines to vote for a speaker from the other party, but they rarely, if ever, do so.
Why has it taken so long to pick a speaker?
The short answer is that 21 Republicans withheld their support from McCarthy at first, making it hard for him to round up 218 votes. It took a lot of negotiating and a considerable number of concessions by McCarthy before many of the holdouts were persuaded to switch to his side.
Democrats could have cut the process short if 33 of their members had skipped the vote, lowering the number McCarthy would need to win to 201 — his initial level of support. They did not.
The longer answer is that McCarthy and his backers didn’t go the usual route of nailing down enough support before the House convened, forcing a messy and public scramble.
In recent decades, there have always been a few members of the incoming House majority who wanted their caucus to change its leadership. But by the time the new Congress was ready to convene, the leader — whether it was Republicans John A. Boehner of Ohio or Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, or Democrat Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco — had quelled enough opposition to win the gavel on the first ballot.
Before this year’s first vote for speaker, five Republicans — Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Bob Good of Virginia, Ralph Norman of South Carolina and Matt Rosendale of Montana — declared that they would not support McCarthy. Given the GOP’s slim margin, their five votes were enough to block anyone from winning if all 434 members voted.
Once the voting started, 16 more Republicans joined the anti-McCarthy faction. Most were new or junior members from the GOP’s right flank whose biggest complaints were about the legislative process. In particular, they said that rank-and-file members had too little ability to influence bills, resulting in what they said was ruinous overspending and other policy failures.
To win them over, McCarthy reportedly pledged to give the conservative Freedom Caucus more seats on the Rules Committee; require the annual spending bills to come to the floor in more manageable sizes and with unlimited amendments; and allow a vote on term limits for House members, among other concessions.
He also agreed to let a single member compel the House to vote on whether to replace the speaker — a hair-trigger rule that had been a thorn in the side for Boehner and Ryan. (The House changed the rule when Pelosi became speaker in 2019, making it far more difficult to force a vote.) Under such a motion to vacate the chair, as few as five Republicans could oust McCarthy if they had the support of all 212 Democrats.
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