Pop yourself some popcorn and sit down with your favorite news network Tuesday. We might just witness a political drama of a type not seen since the lead-up to the Civil War. Which somehow seems appropriate, given the tenor of today’s political discourse.
Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy is trying to achieve a lifetime goal: Become speaker of the House of Representatives. Unless a hopeless deadlock prompts the body to change the rules, McCarthy will need a majority vote of the entire chamber, which would be 218 if all 435 members vote for an individual by name.
Republicans hold 222 seats in the 118th Congress, but five members of the party’s extreme right have publicly declared themselves hard noes — “Never Kevins” who say they will not support McCarthy under any circumstances. Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Bob Good of Virginia, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Matt Rosendale of Montana and Ralph Norman of South Carolina have formed a bloc and vowed not to allow McCarthy to plead his case with them individually. It’s all or none.
Leaving McCarthy with, right now, 217 votes at best.
If no one gets at least 218 votes, Congress will vote again. And again, and again, until someone reaches the necessary threshold. Or until members, perhaps motivated by exhaustion, vote to accept a plurality winner, as has occurred in three of the previous 127 speakership elections.
McCarthy has more than five critics among House Republicans, of course. In secret balloting to select their new majority leader on Nov. 15, 31 Republicans voted for Biggs rather than McCarthy, while, and in a separate vote for the No. 2 job, Louisiana’s Steve Scalise was unanimously elected majority whip. In other words Scalise, who has been McCarthy’s faithful leadership sidekick, is 31 votes more popular in the Republican caucus than McCarthy and thus, whether he likes it or not, looms as a viable multiple-ballot alternative for speaker.
McCarthy has been trying to win over his critics in the House’s 44-member Freedom Caucus for months — years, really. In doing so, he’s gone to great lengths to please what former Speaker John Boehner once called the House’s “legislative terrorists” — a sub-subset of fringe members who have no real policy or ideological goals other than fomenting chaos. McCarthy did gain the support of one of the most prominent in that group — the QAnon queen of Congress, Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene — with promises of undisclosed influence. She now practically owns McCarthy, or so she boasted in October. “He’s going to give me a lot of power and a lot of leeway,” Greene told The New York Times. “And if he doesn’t, (many in the far right) are going to be very unhappy about it.”
Last week, McCarthy made his biggest concession yet to the far right, one that underscores just how dire he views the situation: He agreed to a rule change that would lower the number of members required to force a “motion to vacate the chair,” or remove the speaker. Previously, half of the majority party, or 111 members in the present case, would be required to force such a vote. McCarthy agreed to drop that number to five — a Faustian deal that makes him even more beholden to this small, reckless faction of Congress.
So McCarthy has no margin for error in the balloting for speaker, and, if he wins, little margin if he hopes to avoid the spectacle — and the very real threat — of a no-confidence vote. Any semblance of compromise or accommodation with Democrats might trigger such a vote. That’s why we’ve seen McCarthy, summoning theatrical outrage, declare his intention to investigate everything Democrats have said or done in the past two years up to and possibly including the available flavors of Jell-O salad in the House cafeteria.
No one knows where Tuesday’s voting could go if McCarthy doesn’t win on the first ballot; a second ballot hasn’t been required since 1923, when Republican Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts won on the House’s ninth attempt at selecting a speaker.
The most difficult battles over the selection of a speaker have coincided with national disunity. Democrat Howell Cobb of Georgia, later to become one of the founders of the Confederacy, won on the 63rd ballot in 1849, establishing what was then a record for revotes. The most protracted vote for speaker followed six years later when Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts, whose more liberal Republican Party was just emerging from the ashes of the Whig Party, was selected after two months and 133 ballots. Even then, the vote was settled only after the House, riven by antebellum factions, approved a resolution that allowed for a plurality winner, and Banks won with just 103 votes. Yet another drawn-out speaker vote (44 ballots) followed in 1859, and then came the Civil War.
The Civil War is back, at least in terms of right-wing rhetoric. Gaetz has defended Americans’ right “to maintain an armed rebellion against the government,” and Greene, before joining the McCarthy team, made pronouncements tinged with similar hostility.
Now the stage is set for another extended fight over the speakership, the first in exactly a century. One wonders at what point saner Republicans will tire of the circus and, with the support of a half-dozen conservative Democrats, reach out to a compromise candidate outside the present House roster.
It could happen. Faustian deals rarely end well.