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Even in a normal year choosing a speaker takes time.
It may take longer this year as Republicans struggle to unite behind Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has told colleagues a first-ballot victory didn’t look likely, as Bloomberg’s Billy House and Erik Wasson reported.
As part of Tuesday’s opening of the 118th Congress, every person who won a seat declares who they want to set the agenda, decide what bills come up for votes, and be the person who’s second in the line of presidential succession. It’s a formal roll call, with the members-elect summoned in alphabetical order.
If no one wins a majority in that roll call, the vote is repeated.
The last multiballot election for speaker was in 1923, when Frederick Gillett (R-Mass.) won on the ninth ballot.
To get the job, Gillett had to assuage the concerns of about 20 colleagues who had withheld support while demanding changes to House rules.
Before that, multiple ballots were fairly common; 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, it took 63 ballots and three weeks for the House to elect Howell Cobb (D-Ga.) as speaker. In late 1855 and early 1856, when the slavery issue intensified divisions between the parties, Nathaniel Banks (R-Mass.) won after 133 ballots and two months.
In both of those cases, the House adopted a rule to elect the speaker by a plurality vote rather than a majority vote, according to Jenkins and Stewart.
Heading into the 118th Congress, McCarthy’s first challenge was to line up enough of his fellow Republicans to win a majority. With 222 Republicans elected, that meant little margin for defections.
How It Works
Nomination: Shortly after representatives-elect electronically record that they are present, the Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus chairs nominate their candidates for speaker.
Additional candidates can be nominated as well, and votes may be cast for people who aren’t nominated. For instance, in the January 2015 speaker’s election, Republican Reps. Daniel Webster and Ted Yoho of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas were nominated along with John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 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-elect 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.
“I would look very carefully at the way that these members express their opposition to McCarthy,” political scientist Matthew Green said in an interview.
In January 2021, when Pelosi was re-elected speaker with 216 votes, three Democrats voted “present” instead of joining two other anti-Pelosi Democrats who cast a vote for a specific candidate. McCarthy won 209 votes, backed by every House Republican who participated in the election.
Pelosi’s 2021 win was the fifth time in the past century that a speaker won with fewer than 218 votes, according to the Congressional Research Service. The others were Boehner in 2015, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1997, Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) in 1943, and Gillett in 1923.
Next Steps: After the vote, a committee of Republicans and Democrats — including the winner’s state delegation — is named to escort the speaker-elect to the speaker’s rostrum. The minority leader gives brief remarks, then the speaker-elect. The Democratic caucus elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) to be the minority leader in the 118th Congress.
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.
The speaker then administers the oath en masse to the entire body.
To contact the reporter on this story: Katherine Rizzo in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org