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For the second time in eight years, the House will be forced to elect a speaker at a time other than at the beginning of a new Congress.
Republicans are planning an Oct. 10 closed-door meeting of their conference to hear from candidates to succeed Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the first speaker ever removed from the House’s top job by a vote of its members.
Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.) and Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (Ohio) are top contenders to succeed McCarthy, who was ousted Oct. 3 by hard-right dissidents just nine months after securing the job in a 15-ballot donnybrook. Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) is a likely candidate.
The full House could then meet as soon as Oct. 11 for a formal election of a new speaker. House Republicans have a 221-212 seat advantage that’s a much smaller majority than the 247-188 edge House Republicans had in October 2015, when Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was elected speaker after John Boehner (R-Ohio) resigned following clashes with conservative agitators in his conference. Ryan reluctantly accepted the job after McCarthy, then majority leader, withdrew after failing to secure enough vote commitments.
Because the speaker’s election traditionally is a party-line vote, the nominee of the Republican conference will have little margin for defections. One thing that may help unify the GOP this time: After several GOP members called for Donald Trump to be elected speaker, the former president endorsed Jordan.
Here’s how the process works.
Presiding Officer: At the beginning of a Congress, the House is convened by the clerk from the previous Congress, a wrinkle that helped propel Cheryl Johnson to the spotlight when she was overseeing the days of voting in January 2023.
Elections during a Congress are run by one of the members. As outgoing speaker, Boehner kicked off the floor process that elected Ryan, while Jim Wright (D-Texas), who had announced his resignation from Congress, presided over the June 1989 election of Tom Foley (D-Wash.).
This time, Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who was designated speaker pro tempore after McCarthy’s removal, will be in charge.
Nomination: Shortly after representatives electronically record that they are present, the Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus chairs nominate their candidates for speaker. The main contenders will be the Republican nominee and, if tradition holds, Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
Other Names: Additional candidates can be nominated, and votes may be cast for people who aren’t nominated. While the Constitution doesn’t require the speaker to be a member of the House, all 55 speakers have been.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led the effort to unseat McCarthy, voted for Trump on three of the 15 ballots in the January 2023 speaker’s election. Retired Army Gen. Colin Powell received votes in 2013 and 2015, while Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s 2018 and 2022 governor’s elections, received a vote in 2019.
Roll Call: Then comes the voting, which since 1839 has been conducted out loud on the House floor. A few members-elect of the House are appointed as tellers to tally the votes. Only representatives get to vote; the delegates from the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, US Virgin Islands, and the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico do not.
For a vote to count, the lawmakers have to state someone’s name. If they say “present” or say nothing, the effect will be the same as if they didn’t show up at all, and fewer than 218 votes could constitute a majority.
In January 2023, McCarthy won on the 15th ballot with 216 votes, a majority of the 428 votes cast for named candidates. All 212 Democrats voted for Jeffries.
Six Republicans voted “present” and helped McCarthy win by essentially abstaining rather than opposing him: Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Eli Crane (Ariz.), Bob Good (Va.), Matt Rosendale (Mont.), and Gaetz. All but Boebert were among the eight Republicans who joined Democrats in the Oct. 3 vote that removed McCarthy as speaker.
In January 2021, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was re-elected speaker with 216 votes, a majority of the 427 votes cast for named candidates. Three Democrats opposed to Pelosi voted “present” instead of joining two other anti-Pelosi Democrats who cast a vote for a specific candidate.
McCarthy’s win was the sixth time in the past century that a speaker won with fewer than 218 votes, according to the Congressional Research Service. The others were Pelosi in 2021, Boehner in 2015, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1997, Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) in 1943, and Frederick Gillett (R-Mass.) in 1923.
It Can Take A While: The roll-call vote usually takes about an hour. In January 2023, the 15-ballot marathon required four days of voting. In January 2021, the process took almost three hours because the coronavirus pandemic required voting in smaller groups.
If no candidate wins a majority of eligible votes cast, the process is repeated until a winner is determined.
Before 2023, the last multiballot election was in 1923, when Gillett won on the ninth ballot after assuaging the concerns of about 20 progressives who had withheld support while demanding changes to House rules.
Multiballot elections were more common early in the nation’s history. About a third of speaker elections between the first Congress in 1789 and the start of the Civil War required more than one ballot to resolve, according to “Fighting for the Speakership,” a 2013 book by political scientists Jeffery A. Jenkins and Charles Stewart III.
In 1849, no party had a majority of seats, and it took 63 ballots and three weeks for the House to elect Howell Cobb (D-Ga.) as speaker. In 1855, when the slavery issue intensified divisions between the parties, Nathaniel Banks (R-Mass.) won after 133 ballots and two months.
In both cases, the House adopted a rule to elect the speaker by a plurality vote rather than a majority vote, according to Jenkins and Stewart.
The Next Steps: After the vote, a committee of Republicans and Democrats — including the winner’s state delegation — will be named to escort the speaker-elect to the speaker’s rostrum. The minority leader gives brief remarks, then the speaker-elect.
The longest-serving member of the House, or dean, traditionally administers the oath to the speaker-elect. The current dean is Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who has the same length of House service as Chris Smith (R-N.J.) but has an edge because his last name comes first in the alphabet.
At the beginning to the Congress, the speaker administers the oath en masse to the entire body after he or she is sworn in. In January 2023, that meant it took several days into the session before members-elect became members.
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at email@example.com