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Why ousting the House speaker could be easy in 118th Congress
House reading clerk Tylease Alli calls the roll during the eighth round of voting for speaker on Jan. 5, 2023. (AP) House reading clerk Tylease Alli calls the roll during the eighth round of voting for speaker on Jan. 5, 2023. (AP)

House reading clerk Tylease Alli calls the roll during the eighth round of voting for speaker on Jan. 5, 2023. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 5, 2023

Seemingly endless roll call votes have become the signature of the House’s inability to choose a speaker for the new Congress. But however long it takes to choose a speaker, it might be time to get accustomed to hearing hundreds of representatives’ names called out.

Whoever wins the speakership looks likely to have a fragile hold on the position, thanks to a combination of the Republicans’ narrow margin in the chamber and the deep suspicions between the supporters and opponents of Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the choice of most House Republicans for speaker.

As the House Republican Leader during the last Congress, McCarthy was first in line for the speakership when the GOP won a majority of seats in the 2022 midterm elections. 

But through the first 10 ballots, McCarthy failed to sway about 20 members of his caucus to vote for him, leaving him short of the majority needed to win (and trailing the minority Democrats’ nominee, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who had his party’s unanimous backing). 

If all members of the House are present and voting, the Republicans have a five-seat majority at the start of the 118th Congress. For the past two years, Democrats have had an equally narrow five-seat margin. But during that period, Democrats were almost entirely unified under former Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, a unity that Republicans have not demonstrated so far.

Whoever becomes speaker can be voted out

There are numerous possibilities for how the speaker vote could turn out. McCarthy could make enough concessions to win over some of his critics. Or he might step back in favor of an alternative candidate, such as Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was the No. 2 House Republican during the last Congress. Or — least likely, but not impossible — some sort of coalition arrangement could be assembled, under which Democrats agree en masse to support a moderate or pragmatic Republican.

However the speakership vote shakes out, critics will likely be able to pursue a vote to change speakers fairly easily.

The specifics of how to oust a speaker will be finalized once members are sworn in and pass a rules package, which will be the new speaker’s first order of business. 

Specifics for the next two years aren't yet settled, but the rules have long allowed a "motion to vacate the chair" — essentially, to call a new vote for speaker. 

Historically, such motions have been rare — one was last voted upon more than a century ago — and under Pelosi, Democrats made it harder. Under the last Congress’ rules, a motion to vacate would not have been able to advance to a vote unless "by direction of a party caucus or conference," presumably meaning the party leadership. But a speaker representing the majority likely wouldn’t allow such a vote. A minority leader could try it, but probably would not have enough votes to topple a speaker under ordinary circumstances. 

During the previous Congress, an internal GOP policy required a majority of the party’s membership to agree to pursue a motion to vacate — a fairly high bar. After Republicans secured control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, McCarthy agreed to a much lower threshold, just five members.

And after failing to win the speakership two days in a row, McCarthy made a concession to the GOP bloc opposing him: In the next Congress, any single member could offer a motion to vacate, news outlets reported.

Having an easily deposed speaker makes legislating that much harder because it empowers dissident members and factions at the expense of the incumbent speaker, experts said.

Depending on how well or poorly the speaker has treated them, Democrats may be in no mood to bail out the speaker, said Eric Schickler, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

"The motion to vacate coming to a vote is embarrassing but survivable if some (Democrats) vote ‘present,’ but it is not survivable if Democrats are sufficiently angry and hard-nosed that they all vote to vacate," Schickler said.

Adding to the challenge is another concession McCarthy may be ready to make: He has "expressed a willingness" to place more members of the House Freedom Caucus on the House Rules Committee, a crucial procedural gatekeeper that sets parameters for considering legislation on the floor.

"That's the big one going forward," said C. Lawrence Evans, a College of William & Mary government professor. If four or five Republicans on the rules panel vote no along with all the Democrats, "McCarthy can't advance legislation to the floor. Putting them on Rules essentially brings them directly into the agenda setting process. That will be very interesting. It's been decades since we've seen open conflict like that within Rules."

Experts say that providing too many concessions all but ensures a weakened, perpetually-in-peril speakership. And this will reduce the House’s already limited power compared with the White House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"It’s been clear since the election that legislative prospects for the next two years will be dim, with a Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House," said Rich Cohen, chief author of the Almanac of American Politics. 

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Our Sources

PolitiFact, "Kevin McCarthy won the GOP nomination for House speaker. Getting elected may be tricky," Nov. 15, 2022

ABC News, "What is a 'motion to vacate' -- a key sticking point in GOP speaker battle?" Jan. 5, 2023

Washington Post, "McCarthy makes fresh concessions to try to woo hard-right Republicans in speaker bid," Jan. 5, 2023

Email interview with Rich Cohen, chief author of the Almanac of American Politics, Jan. 5, 2023

Email interview with C. Lawrence Evans, government professor at the College of William & Mary, Jan. 5, 2023

Email interview with Matthew Green, political scientist at the Catholic University of America, Jan. 5, 2023

Email interview with Eric Schickler, political scientist at the University of California-Berkeley, Jan. 5, 2023

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Why ousting the House speaker could be easy in 118th Congress