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Under New Management: Kevin McCarthy Ascends to Speaker of the House

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Tuesday, January 3, saw the start of the 118th Congress. However, unlike new congressional seasons past, there was no Speaker of the House to headline it.

While the GOP barely managed to claw back a brittle 222-seat majority (with 218 seats needed for a majority) in the November midterms, despite much anticipation of a Republican blowout, there was already a much larger question of whom the GOP caucus would elect as Speaker of the U.S. House, as well as second in succession for the presidency.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA-11) traded a 2022 stint as Speaker for her final one in 2020, in order to court moderate Democrats embarrassed by a near House loss in the 2020 elections. As Pelosi has stepped aside for newer, younger leadership, intraparty fighting on the right has led to a near collapse of unity within the GOP.

The rules of a speaker vote are simple: one candidate must receive an outright majority of all ballots cast. If no one arrives at the magic number, 218, then candidates are renominated by their caucuses and another vote is held. If members abstain from the vote, by voting “present,” the threshold for victory is lowered by one vote for each abstention.

This resulted in a historic standoff, the likes of which has not been seen since the Civil War. Since 1923, every Speaker vote was resolved in just one ballot. As soon as the vote went to a second round, we experienced an event not seen in exactly 100 years.

This is because of nearly two dozen members of the GOP refusing to back McCarthy as the most powerful Republican in the country (on paper). Members of the conservative, small-government, limited-spending, and “drain the swamp” initiatives, like Matt Gaetz (FL-01), Lauren Boebert (CO-03), and Paul Gosar (AZ-09), voted for other candidates, keeping McCarthy, as well as Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08), under 218 votes.

The votes continued for four days and fifteen ballots, the most ballots required for a speaker vote since the 36th Congress convened in 1859, which required nine ballots. For reference, out of the 14 Speaker elections that required multiple ballots, 13 occurred before the Civil War. The record is 133 ballots in 1855.

Some notable members of Congress received votes from the GOP holdouts, including Jim Jordan (OH-04) and Byron Donalds (FL-19). As per the Constitution, nominees for Speaker of the House are not required to be members of the incoming House. As such, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida voted for former President Donald Trump on three ballots. Representative Andy Harris (R) of Maryland’s First District voted for former Representative Lee Zeldin in the first round.

A unique aspect of this Speaker vote: since the House had no leader, no formal rules could be adopted, meaning the media had much more freedom with camera operation. Documented were

heated moments, cinematic focused shots, and wide panoramas of the House floor. A notable highlight was when Mike Rogers (AL-04) apparently lunged at holdout Gaetz. Some unlikely conversations were captured, namely one of Matt Gaetz, a staunchly conservative Florida Republican, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York’s Fourteenth District, discussing measures for breaking the stalemate.

The stalemate, however, was eventually broken, but not in one cohesive fashion. After several negotiations, 14 Republican holdouts switched their votes to McCarthy, but because a few of the other holdouts continued to cast ballots for alternative candidates, the threshold was still not met.

The GOP managed to land some crucial negotiations, including, but not limited to, the ability for one member to start a vote to remove the speaker, should he go back on his word; line-item bills in an attempt to avoid egregious omnibus pork-barrel packages; placing Republicans associated with the Freedom Caucus on the Rules Committee; and agreement to creating a 10-year plan to balance the federal budget, namely by capping discretionary spending to what it was in President Biden’s first year and “long-term reforms” to mandatory spending programs like Medicare, Social Security, etcetera. 

Six GOP holdouts abstained from the final vote, allowing McCarthy to clinch the Speakership with 216 votes at 12:37 a.m. on January 7. Consequently, all members-elect of the House were formally sworn in en masse, allowing the 118th Congress to commence.

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D) gave a speech that some equate to that of a presidential campaign. Eyes will certainly be on the young leader’s political future, as some compare him to an Obama 2.0.

Speaker McCarthy then gave his speech at around 1:00 a.m. Both he and Jeffries honored Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D) for her near two decades of Democratic leadership in the House.

It remains to be seen if McCarthy will keep his word and keep his party unified under such strenuous circumstances. The razor-thin majority the GOP holds keeps them at nothing more than a coin flip to retain the House in the 2024 elections. Another possibility is that of a mid-session change of power, something that has never happened in the House, and only once in the Senate. 

This would occur if Republicans were to lose five seats before the 2024 elections, either due to deaths, resignations, botched special elections or party switching.