Washington, DC – The election of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives — usually a formality — is a nail-biter this year.
Although Republicans narrowly won the House in November’s midterm elections, GOP leader Kevin McCarthy does not have an assured majority to take the gavel amid opposition from a few members of his own caucus.
So when the incoming Congress meets for the first time on Tuesday, a majority may fail to materialise in support of a new House Speaker. And that, in turn, would practically make the chamber nonfunctional.
The House Speaker plays a critical role in the US government. Not only does the Speaker preside over the lower chamber of Congress, but they also stand second in line to the presidency, ready to lead the country if both the president and vice president are unable to serve.
The last time a Speaker was not elected in the first roll call was exactly 100 years ago. Should that happen again on Tuesday, House legislators will hold further rounds of voting until a candidate can secure the needed votes.
Whoever is elected Speaker holds “massive influence over what sorts of bills and amendments get voted on in Congress”, said Christian Fong, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. That “gives them a tremendous amount of control over what becomes law”.
While there has been vocal opposition by legislators of both parties to the growing power of the Speaker, Fong foresees a particularly rough path to the gavel for McCarthy.
“It’s a very thin [Republican] majority, so it only takes a small group of determined representatives to really get together and pose a credible threat to prevent the Speaker from being elected,” Fong told Al Jazeera.
How we got here
Republicans have 222 seats in the incoming House — a tiny majority in the 435-member chamber. With Democrats all but certain to vote against McCarthy, a handful of Republicans can ensure that he does not get to the 218 votes he needs to replace outgoing Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Several far-right Republicans have already promised not to back McCarthy, painting him as a career politician who does not share their populist ideals.
Pelosi herself faced internal opposition when she was up for reelection as Speaker in 2021, with House Democrats likewise holding a slim majority at the time. Still, she managed to keep the gavel even though two centrist members of her caucus nominated other candidates and three others voted “present” as a form of protest.
“One reason why you don’t see more opposition to the Speaker in the modern era is that the Speaker controls all kinds of valuable resources that members of the House of Representatives really want,” Fong said.
“Committee assignments is one good example,” he explained. “Campaign funds is another.”
But McCarthy faces the challenge that many of his right-wing Republican opponents simply “are not very interested” in the perks that the Speaker can offer, Fong said.
Many of McCarthy’s Republican critics come from so-called “safe districts”, where they face few serious challengers during election season. And several of them have strong political bases, making them less reliant on the Speaker for fundraising, media reach and other assistance.
The early trouble for McCarthy underscores a major issue he may face as Speaker: Members with outsized power who can threaten to effectively wipe out the Republican majority if they do not get their way.
McCarthy has been negotiating with the politicians who oppose his bid for Speaker, offering concessions that may dilute his own power. He has promised to centre right-wing priorities, including investigating the business practices of President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden — an issue that Democrats dismiss as a conspiracy theory.
McCarthy, a California Republican, has also called on Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to resign over his handling of migration at the southern border and threatened to investigate and impeach him.
Moreover, he promised to restore the committee assignments of Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was kicked off congressional panels in 2021 over anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments.
Greene has been one of the few far-right firebrands backing his bid for the speakership.
“If Kevin McCarthy becomes Speaker of the House, it’s because he’s handed over the reins of his caucus to Marjorie Taylor Greene and the most MAGA Republicans,” the Democratic Party wrote on Twitter on Monday, using the acronym for former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Still, other conservative Republicans are not showing signs of budging.
“The times call for radical departure from the status quo — not a continuation of past and ongoing Republican failures,” a group of nine ultraconservative House members said in a statement on Sunday.
“For someone with a 14-year presence in senior House Republican leadership, Mr. McCarthy bears squarely the burden to correct the dysfunction he now explicitly admits across that long tenure.”
Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz has been helping lead the right-wing dissent against McCarthy, and he accused the Republican leader of “caving to liberals” and contributing to his party’s underwhelming performance in November’s elections.
“In sports, when the team loses games it is supposed to win, the coach gets fired. In business, when earnings vastly miss projections, the CEO is replaced,” Gaetz wrote in the conservative publication The Daily Caller last month.
“In Republican politics, a promotion shouldn’t be failure’s chaser.”
By Monday, politicians in the so-called “never Kevin” camp appeared confident they could thwart McCarthy’s speakership bid. “I do not believe he will ever get to 218 votes, and I refuse to assist him in his effort to get those votes,” Republican Congressman Andy Biggs wrote on Twitter.
What the GOP rebels want
McCarthy still has hours to secure the votes necessary, and his GOP critics do not have a viable replacement to take the gavel.
So what are McCarthy’s opponents after?
Fong, the political science professor, said the right-wing legislators see an opportunity to strengthen their positions and divert power away from the eventual Speaker, allowing them to have a bigger say in the legislative process.
“They see that they have some real leverage to try to get some rules changes through. They’ve staked out a really tough bargaining position for themselves,” he said.
Brendan Buck, a communications consultant who previously worked for Republican speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner, also believes that the GOP politicians opposing McCarthy want to weaken — not choose — the next speaker.
“The embarrassment indeed may be the point,” Buck wrote in an essay published in the New York Times on Monday. “The dissident members believe a weak speaker would make them more powerful. In truth, it would benefit no one.”