McCarthy's Path to Speaker Uncertain Ahead of Today's Vote

The 118th Congress opens today.  The Senate is in town just today – when it convenes at noon for the first session of the 118th Congress, the swearing-in of Senators, and various housekeeping measures – before recessing again until January 23rd.

The House, however, has a bit more work and drama in store for its opening day.  The first official act of in the House will be the election of the Speaker and the order of business in the House is as follows:

  1. Call to order
  2. Prayer and pledge
  3. Quorum call
  4. Election of the Speaker
  5. Swearing in of Speaker
  6. Swearing in of Members
  7. Adoption of the Rules of the House for the 118th Congress

With a narrow 4-seat majority Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has faced a difficult path to securing the votes for Speaker of the House.   He is the Republican conference nominee for Speaker – but he must win the votes a majority of Members present on the floor to become Speaker.  Currently five Republican Members have said they will not vote for McCarthy.  He needs to lower that number to win.  Leader McCarthy remains in a strong position to be elected Speaker of the House.  He retains widespread support from the vast majority of the Republican Conference and there isn’t a serious challenger. But that doesn’t mean he will have enough votes to become Speaker on the first ballot.

The threshold of support required to support a “Motion to Vacate” before it comes to the floor continues to divide the Republican Conference and the outcome of the debate impacts the perceived power of the Speaker.  The “Motion to Vacate” is a procedure to remove a Speaker.  The more Members required to support a motion, the harder it is to remove a Speaker from office.  Speaker Pelosi changed the rule to require a majority of a conference to support the motion.  Freedom Caucus members and McCarthy critics want the threshold lowered to as little just one Member. 

Most of the Conference prefers a strong Speaker, but that is not a unanimous view. Leader McCarthy has agreed to lower the threshold to five members – but that hasn’t appeared to have gained any additional votes – yet – for his Speaker election. 

No one in Congress today has ever experienced a multi-ballot speaker election; the last time a Speakership election went to multiple ballots was 1923. While not unprecedented, no one around today has been through a multi-ballot process. 

The House of Representatives governs itself and sets its own rules. But when the 118th Congress is called to order, there are no “rules” because a rules package has not yet been approved by the House. Until the rules package is adopted, the House operates under “General Parliamentary Law,” with Clerk of the House presiding and empowered to make rulings, which can be appealed to the full House. In effect, that means a majority of members can dictate how the House proceeds through the day until a Speaker is elected and a rules package is adopted.

Specifically, this will impact a motion to adjourn after one or more ballots for Speaker. Under general parliamentary law, and past precedent, if no one is elected Speaker on the first ballot, the next order of business is an immediate vote on a second ballot. But if a member makes a motion to adjourn, the full House will vote on that motion, with a majority vote required. House Democrats could choose to cooperate, or not, and if Republican holdouts are not ready to go back to conference and negotiate, they could force additional rounds of votes for Speaker by defeating the motion to adjourn.

Once the Speaker is elected and sworn in the Members of the House will be sworn in and there will be a vote of the full House to adopt the Rules package, which was drafted and discussed by the House Republican conference and has incorporated multiple amendments, meaning it reflects the strong consensus of the Republican Conference. But it likely will be further modified prior to the vote as a piece and part of the resolution of the Speaker vote.

One practical effect of the Speaker vote is that the 118th Congress will get off to a slow start in January. The contested Chairmanships – Ways and Means, Homeland Security, Education and Workforce, and potentially Budget – still must be decided by the Steering Committee. Committee ratios must then be determined, with some level of negotiation and agreement between the Speaker and Minority Leader. And then the Steering Committee will populate the committees. Until such time, the committees can’t really get up and running at full speed.

This week: 118th Congress kicks off with Speaker vote, lawmakers sworn in 
The Hill 
By Mychael Schnell 
January 3, 2023 – 6:00am 
Divided Government Set to Return With Start of 118th Congress 
The GOP-led House will elect a new speaker Tuesday, and then will vote on legislation covering the IRS, China and abortion.
The Wall Street Journal 
By Katy Stech Ferek and Natalie Andrews 
January 2, 2023 – 10:22am 
Four major battles facing Congress in 2023 
From a fight for speaker and government shutdowns to debt ceiling increases and GOP investigations of the Biden administration, it promises to be a contentious year on the Hill. 
NBC News 
By Sahil Kapur and Scott Wong 
January 2, 2023 – 11:23am 
Kevin McCarthy scrambles to firm up his speaker bid as vote looms 
McCarthy and colleagues have spent the weekend working the phones and negotiating with the holdouts who threaten to keep the gavel away from the California Republican 
The Washington Post 
By Marianna Sotomayor 
January 2, 2023 – 7:39pm 
GOP dilemma: If not McCarthy, then who? 
By Manu Raju, Melanie Zanona and Lauren Fox 
January 2, 2023 – 8:26pm 
House GOP promises to probe COVID-19 origins, ax proxy voting, magnetometers 
A speaker must be elected first and House Republicans are divided. 
ABC News 
By Gabe Ferris 
January 2, 2023 – 2:21pm