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House Republicans’ Inability to Select a Speaker Foreshadows How They Will Govern

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #48 | By: Ian Milden | December 20, 2022

Header photo taken from: Chip Somodevilla / Getty

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Can Kevin McCarthy secure GOP support to become Speaker of the House?

Photo taken from: Mary F. Calvert, Reuters

Policy Summary

The new terms for members of Congress will start in a few weeks. Current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has yet to secure enough votes to become the next Speaker of the House. This brief will explain why he doesn’t have the votes yet and what it could mean for the next two years in the House of Representatives.

Policy Analysis

To become the Speaker of the House, someone must secure the votes of a majority of its 435 members. Unless there are multiple vacancies, that means someone will require 218 votes to become the Speaker. There will be one vacancy at the start of the new Congress due to the passing of Congressman Donald McEachin of Virginia, but this should not affect the math for the House Speaker vote. The House can not proceed with other business until a new Speaker is selected.

Due to the results of the 2022 mid-term elections, Republicans will control 222 seats. This means that Republicans have enough votes to select the new Speaker, but they must get the agreement of almost all Republican members. Usually, a new Speaker will have the votes secured by this point. However, Kevin McCarthy is facing vocal and public opposition from at least five Republican members of Congress, which is enough to prevent him from becoming the next Speaker. Donald Trump has asked these members to drop their opposition to McCarthy, but that does not seem to be changing their minds.

The Republican members of Congress who are opposed to McCarthy want to reinstate the ability of individual members to request a vote to replace the Speaker at any time. This would make the Speaker more responsive to the individual demands of members of his party. Both moderate and ideologically conservative members of Congress could use this to pressure the Speaker, which would make it challenging to pass legislation considering that the two wings of the party have divergent goals. 

There are moderates who are interested in passing legislation and working with Democrats as needed, while other members will prioritize ideological goals and self-promotion at the expense of serious legislative activity. Regardless of whether McCarthy or anyone else makes this concession, whoever becomes the next Speaker will face pressures from both ends of the Republican Party on legislation and political strategy.


With the death of Virginia Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, the new Congress will begin with a vacancy until there is a special election to fill that seat. McEachin’s untimely death does not give some breathing room to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in his quest to become Speaker. The new Congress will begin with 434 members. The magic number for McCarthy continues to be 218 - an outright majority of the entire body.

Photo taken from: Steve Helber / The Associated Press

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McCarthy has tried to become the Speaker before. He was the House Majority Leader when John Boehner resigned. McCarthy tried to become the new Speaker, but the more ideological members of the Republican majority refused to support him, which resulted in Paul Ryan becoming the Speaker after McCarthy withdrew from consideration. This time, McCarthy is dealing with a slimmer majority and less political capital due to Republicans’ weaker-than-expected performance in the 2022 mid-term elections. McCarthy may have to withdraw from consideration again if he can’t secure the votes to become the Speaker of the House.

If McCarthy doesn’t become the Speaker, Republicans may struggle to agree on an alternative. The position is likely less desirable at the moment due to the pressures from within the Republican party and the lack of a durable majority. Democrats may only have to make minor adjustments to their campaign strategy to retake control of the House in 2024. 

 

Given that the Republican majority may not last, a compromise candidate for Speaker might indicate plans to retire at the end of their term to secure the job. It would be possible for House Republicans to pick someone who is not a current member of the House to be the Speaker, but this would be an unprecedented and unlikely outcome. As I previously stated, the House can not proceed with other business until a new Speaker is selected.

The failure of House Republicans to agree on the next Speaker has implications for governing. It will be challenging to get passable legislation out of the House. Legislation that is passed on a party-line vote will likely die in the Senate since it is controlled by Democrats. Republicans may not be willing to compromise on significant legislation as Republican leaders have been reluctant to bring any legislation up for a floor vote when it did not have broad support within the Republican Party

Republican leaders have had to bring legislation to the floor that significant portions of Republican members disliked to keep the government open and funded. Given the reliance on continuing resolutions to fund the government due to the inability to pass a budget, the chances of a government shutdown occurring are higher for the next two years.

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