Jan 4 • 9M

A Quick Explainer to the Speaker Chaos

How to enjoy Republicans in Retrograde.

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Charlotte Clymer is a writer and LGBTQ advocate. You've probably seen her on Twitter (@cmclymer). This is the podcast version of her blog "Charlotte's Web Thoughts", which you can subscribe to here: charlotteclymer.substack.com
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Good morning from our Nation’s Capital!

The 118th Congress was supposed to start yesterday, and although the Senate went about its business, the House is currently in a holding pattern after the Republican Caucus failed to elect a speaker to lead its new majority. Three times, in fact.

This isn’t normal. The last time it took more than one ballot to elect a Speaker of the House was in 1923, when Republican lawmaker Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts seized the gavel after nine ballots.

(I should note here that Nancy Pelosi won nine consecutive leadership elections on the first ballot and would never have gone to the House floor without having the votes in hand.)

At noon, today, the House will reconvene to try again on a fourth ballot, and until a new speaker is elected, no other business can proceed, including the swearing-in of House members.

A good friend of mine who doesn’t work in politics texted yesterday to point out that although she follows the news fairly regularly, yesterday’s events were entirely confusing. I don’t blame her. Many of y’all probably feel the same way.

So, here are a few clarifications on the situation.

In the two months after Election Day, every two years, both major parties will privately meet to elect the leaders of their caucus for the following congress. Then, on January 3rd, both parties meet to open the new congress, beginning with the speaker vote. This is almost always straightforward because the vote is along party lines, which have already been settled by that moment.

Again, until a speaker is elected, no other business can be conducted. The proceedings can be adjourned, but things like establishing committees and passing bills and all that other governing stuff can’t be done until a speaker is in place.

Despite winning back the House with a slim majority, Republicans are significantly fractured over whom should be the next speaker.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (CA-20) has been the leader of House Republicans for four years, patiently waiting to take the House reins and doing his damnedest to build goodwill with his GOP colleagues in order to successfully reach this moment, when handing the reins over to him—the caucus leader—should be a done deal.

The problem is that a large bloc of the more conservative members of the Republican Caucus don’t like McCarthy all that much. For the past several weeks, McCarthy has attempted to smooth over these differences, offering numerous concessions to his detractors.

Although McCarthy has certainly gained ground, it hasn’t been enough. Before I get to that, let me explain how this vote works.

To win the Speakership, one only needs a simple majority of the votes. The House has 435 voting members, and in a full vote, that would mean the magic number is 218. That’s when every seat is filled and all members are voting for a nominee.

Sometimes, for various reasons, members will vote “present” or decline to vote, and their seats will not count toward the overall total. When this happens, the majority threshold is lower. So, for example, if there were ten non-votes in the House, the total counted votes would be 425, and the simple majority to be elected would be 213.

Because of the tragic death of Rep. Donald McEachin (VA-4) in late November, there is currently a vacancy in the House, or a current max of 434 votes for speaker.

Making things more complicated, “present” or “decline to vote” can happen without warning during a roll call. Thus, if you’re watching the proceedings today, make sure to keep a mental note on the threshold if someone does not offer a vote that counts toward the total.

However, it is unlikely that there will be a substantial number of members voting “present” or “no vote” today. I’ll circle back to this in a second.

When the House opened proceedings yesterday, McCarthy could stand to lose only four Republicans. Prior to the first ballot, he was nominated for speaker in a glowing speech by Rep. Elise Stefanik (NY-21), the former moderate who sold her soul to jump on the Trump bandwagon and climb the leadership ladder. The speech failed to get the job done. Not even close.

The anti-McCarthy Republicans—19 in all—mostly voted for Rep. Andy Biggs (AZ-5) and Rep. Jim Jordan (OH-4). There was one vote for Rep. Byron Donalds (FL-19). It’s important to note here that Jordan and Donalds voted for McCarthy on the first ballot, underlining the absurdity of the anti-McCarthy bloc.

So, that was embarrassing, and the day only got worse for McCarthy and more confusing for folks watching at home.

On the second ballot, McCarthy didn’t gain a single vote, and all the anti-McCarthy votes switched to Jordan, who had just given a hearty nominating speech in support of McCarthy prior to the second ballot.

On the third ballot, McCarthy again failed to gain any ground, and Donalds stunned the caucus by switching his vote to Jordan, despite voting for McCarthy on the two previous ballots.

Jordan, who is set to become Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has resolutely stated he does not want to be speaker and supports McCarthy’s bid. This has failed to dissuade the anti-McCarthy bloc.

It was clear a speaker would likely not be elected in the evening, so the House was adjourned, giving McCarthy the night to salvage his bid and saving the many scheduled swearing-in parties around town.

All of this took place over five long hours, which were oddly riveting given the circumstances.

One thing that’s notable: if someone hadn’t known the results of November’s midterm elections and were watching the floor proceedings yesterday, they’d have probably thought the Democrats were the party in power. While Republicans mostly sulked and bickered with each other, Democrats were jubilant, offering enthusiastic words for new leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (NY-8), who succeeded former Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month.

At last night’s party and concert for Rep-Elect Maxwell Alejandro Frost, the Democrat who became the first Gen-Z person elected to Congress, the mood was upbeat and celebratory. Despite no one yet being sworn-in and Democrats having lost the House majority, you’d have thought we were in the driver’s seat. Members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, and congressional staffers streamed in and out of the festivities at Union Market on The Wharf.

For once, Democrats were full of confidence and Republicans were in retrograde, an odd juxtaposition given, well, the past six years of shenanigans.

So, what’s gonna happen today?

I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think anyone knows. I think if anyone claims to know what happens next, they’re probably full of it. McCarthy needs to extract 16 votes from the anti-McCarthy bloc to become speaker OR—and this is very unlikely—strike some sort of deal with Democrats to reach the magic number.

It’s been offered that some Republicans may vote “present” or decline to vote in order to make a statement on McCarthy, while lowering the threshold for their colleagues. I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I think the anti-McCarthy folks are seeking to draw blood, not engage in symbolic maneuvers.

And I personally don’t think Kevin McCarthy will be elected speaker. Maybe he’ll surprise all of us by digging down deep. Maybe Trump will finally speak up for McCarthy and pressure the holdouts. Maybe—and again, this is very unlikely—a coalition is built between McCarthy and a handful of Democrats. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I find this all quite delicious. The GOP House Caucus is deeply divided, and if yesterday is any signal of things to come, they’re gonna struggle over the next two years in presenting a case to the American people that they deserve to continue holding the House.

In the meantime, if you’re a Democrat, sit back and give thanks that we have a strong leader in Hakeem Jeffries.

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