House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) won his party’s nomination for speaker, and he did so handily. He had long been expected to win the behind-closed-doors vote, so his decisive victory wasn’t terribly surprising, even with recent rumblings that the party was looking for fresh leadership. But while his 188-31 victory over Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) was well beyond the simple majority he needed, it also demonstrated that there is, indeed, trouble in paradise. McCarthy may have won the secret GOP vote on Nov. 15, but he isn’t speaker yet – and if House Republicans can’t get it together before the January floor vote, he might never be.
Small Resistance – Big Trouble for Kevin McCarthy and Co.?
With just 31 votes, Biggs, McCarthy’s last-minute challenger, stood little chance of actually taking the party’s nomination from the minority leader. But far more important is the eventual floor vote. Whoever becomes the next speaker of the House, he or she will do so by winning 218 votes out of the full Congress after the new representatives swear in and get to work.
It’s almost a given that the speaker of the House will be chosen from the majority party. But it doesn’t have to be that way – twice, the speaker has come from the minority party. In 1795, despite Democratic-Republicans holding a 59-47 lead in the House, the Fourth Congress chose Federalist Representative Jonathan Dayton – the youngest man to have signed the Constitution – as speaker. Then again, in 1839, a minority speaker was chosen: Robert M.T. Hunter was a Whig, yet the 26th Congress he led had a 125-109 Democrat majority.
While it has never actually happened, the speaker could, in theory, be chosen from outside the House itself! There is no constitutional requirement that the position be filled by one of the sitting representatives, and over the years, several people outside of Congress have received nominations and votes for the role.
The point of all that, of course, is that easily winning 188 GOP votes and securing more than half of the House when your party has only a razor-thin majority are two entirely different animals. It may seem a small gap between 188 and 218, but the difference could sink the Golden State Republican and the GOP right along with him.
Biggs pulled 31 votes from McCarthy. Is it likely that all 31 would back a moderate Democrat? No, of course not. But the GOP doesn’t have much room for lost votes, if any at all. There’s concern among some in the party that a middle-of-the-road, compromise candidate from the minority could win by pulling all the Democrats and some Republicans. History shows it’s possible, if uncommon, and the tighter a lead the GOP ends up with, the more likely that scenario is to play out.
What Difference Does It Make?
One might wonder what difference it makes. Won’t Republicans still be able to pass laws and resolutions and launch investigations without one of their own as speaker, as long as they pull a majority? Well, yes and no. The simple majority decides a floor vote – but the speaker calls the vote to begin with. The simple majority on a committee passes legislation out to the full House or conducts investigations – but it is the speaker who hands out those committee assignments.
The speaker determines when the legislative business day begins and ends, swears in new members of Congress, and decides who gets how much time to speak and when. It’s the speaker who takes point in negotiations with both the Senate and the White House and who’s next in line for the presidency after the VP. True, Biden’s legislative agenda and spending spree are dead in the water the moment a majority of Republicans – those who will stand firm, that is – take the lower chamber. But without a Republican – and the right one, at that – filling that role, the GOP won’t accomplish much, if anything, either.
The final, practical effect of the show put on by Biggs and his handful of supporters is likely to be a bevy of compromises between now and January. They had a slim-to-none chance of ousting McCarthy from party leadership, but they certainly can help determine just what kind of speaker he’ll be. Now, to ensure he pulls at least 218 votes in a couple of months, he must appease a couple of dozen dissidents, giving each a little something to secure their backing.
McCarthy stated as much in a press conference when he announced his plans to run the House differently from the way Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has. The message was all about compromise. “Nobody’s gonna have more power than anybody else,” the congressman said in reply to a question about the demands of the Freedom Caucus. “Either we’re going to lead as a team, or we’re gonna lose as individuals.” On the creation of rules, McCarthy explained he can’t do anything on his own. “It’s the conference who decides what the conference rules are,” he said, then added that he plans to listen to every voice. Not once did the savvy politician explicitly say he would have to give up some of the power Pelosi wields as speaker, but that compromise was necessary was perfectly clear. And the GOP House leader embraced it, of course. Better to share that power of leadership with his colleagues than lose it all to the Democrats.
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