The Republican Majority’s Opening Debacle

House Republicans return to Washington today in disarray.

A black-and-white photograph of Representative Kevin McCarthy
Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call / Getty

Republicans today could take control of the House of Representatives, giving them a foothold of power in Washington from which to smother Joe Biden’s agenda and generally make life hell for the president and his family.

Or they might not.

It all depends on whether Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the GOP House leader, can lock down the final votes he needs to become speaker. As of this morning, McCarthy was short of the 218 required for a majority. He can afford to lose only four Republicans in the party-line vote if all members are present. So far, at least five and potentially more than a dozen far-right lawmakers remain opposed to McCarthy’s candidacy or are withholding their support.

Should McCarthy falter on the first vote, to be taken shortly after the 118th Congress gavels into session at noon, the House would remain in a state of limbo. (Democrats and more than a few Republicans might call it purgatory.) Without a speaker, the House can do nothing. It cannot adopt the rules it will use to operate for the next two years; it cannot debate or pass legislation; it cannot form committees and name chairs; it cannot unleash the torrent of subpoenas that Republicans have vowed to send the Biden administration’s way. Without a speaker, in other words, the GOP has no majority.

So for the moment, the functioning of the legislative branch depends on McCarthy’s ability to wrangle votes. And like any deadlocked negotiation on Capitol Hill, his—and the GOP’s—predicament could be resolved quickly, or it could endure for quite a while. If no candidate receives a majority of votes on the first ballot for speaker this afternoon—the only candidate who has a legitimate chance on that roll call is McCarthy—then the House must keep voting until someone does. McCarthy has said he will not drop out after the first ballot, effectively hoping to wear down his GOP opposition or cut deals that will secure him the votes he needs. (His office did not respond to a request for comment last night.) He has little hope of appealing to Democrats, who neither trust nor respect a Republican leader who has spent the past seven years cozying up to Donald Trump.

The vote for speaker is the most formal of congressional roll calls and lasts well over an hour. Beginning alphabetically by last name, the clerk calls out the name of each of the 435 members, who then reply verbally with the candidate of their choice. No speaker vote has gone to a second ballot for a century, leaving no modern precedent for what happens if McCarthy does not get the support of 218 members. He could strike a quick deal and win on a second ballot by nightfall, or the series of ballots could drag out for days or even weeks, especially if the House recesses so that Republicans can convene privately to figure out what to do.

McCarthy is known for being affable but has no reputation for tactical or legislative brilliance. He has desperately tried to placate the five most ardent holdouts—a quintet that includes the Trump loyalist Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida—with concessions that would empower individual members at the expense of McCarthy’s sway as speaker. The most contentious of these involves what’s known as the “motion to vacate,” a mechanism by which members can force a vote to depose the speaker.

Until recent years, the motion to vacate was a rarely used relic of procedural arcana. But in 2015, then-Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina—an ambitious conservative who would go on to greater notoriety as Trump’s final chief of staff—dusted off the motion to vacate and essentially pushed Speaker John Boehner into retirement. When Democrats regained the House majority in 2019, Nancy Pelosi, who’d once again ascended to the speakership, engineered a rules change so that only members of the party leadership could deploy the motion to vacate. McCarthy was hoping to keep that change largely in place, but his GOP opponents have demanded that the House revert to the old rules, which would make it much easier for them to oust the speaker as soon as he antagonized them (say, by going around conservatives to pass legislation with Democrats). Over the weekend, McCarthy told Republicans he’d be willing to create a five-member threshold for forcing a vote on the speaker—a significant move on his part but still not as far as his critics on the right would like.

Although the speaker vote today could be the most suspenseful in memory, McCarthy himself is not in an unfamiliar position. In 2015, he was the presumed successor to Boehner, but a poorly timed gaffe and mistrust among conservatives forced him to withdraw before the vote. He seems intent on avoiding that fate this time around. Nonetheless, McCarthy’s opponents see him as a stooge of the party establishment that they ran to dismantle; they also just don’t seem to like him very much. As yet, McCarthy has no real challenger. But the hardline holdouts have teased a mystery candidate who could step forward on the second ballot, and McCarthy’s ostensibly loyal second-in-command, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, might emerge as a potential consensus choice.

“Governance will be a challenge,” Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a longtime Republican lawmaker and McCarthy ally, told me a couple of months ago. He said it back when Republicans seemed to be on the verge of a resounding midterm victory, one that likely would have smoothed McCarthy’s path to the speakership. Now it sounds like a significant understatement.

The high likelihood is that eventually, perhaps even today, Republicans will claim the narrow House majority that they won at the polls. But even if McCarthy squeaks by on the first or second ballot, the party’s struggle simply to organize itself behind a leader won’t soon be forgotten. It will stand as a painful reminder of the GOP’s electoral underperformance in November, and, almost certainly, it will serve as a harbinger of a rocky two years to come.