14 min read

A House paralyzed

The House failed to elect a speaker after three historic ballots, leaving Kevin McCarthy’s bid in jeopardy.
A House paralyzed
(C-SPAN screengrab)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, January 4, 2023. The 2024 elections are 671 days away.

Welcome back to another high-stakes day in American politics. I was so focused on the speaker vote yesterday that I forgot to wish everyone a happy new year: I hope you all had an excellent end to 2022 and start to 2023.

I am excited to be back in your inboxes for the new year, especially since 2023 is already starting off with a bang in Washington. Keep reading for everything you need to know about yesterday’s dramatic speaker vote(s) and what could happen today.

In this packed edition, I’ll also answer two reader questions and give some book recommendations to understand the ongoing chaos. Happy reading!

If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

McCarthy in jeopardy as House fails to elect speaker

Tuesday was supposed to be a triumphant day for Kevin McCarthy.

After four years in the wilderness, he had finally led his party back to the House majority; the Californian hoped it would be the day he would finally oust Nancy Pelosi and be coronated as her successor, with his Republican colleagues united behind him.

Instead, the 118th Congress opened with the House in a state of chaos, paralyzed by GOP divisions.

For the first time since 1923, the House failed to elect a speaker on the first day of the new Congress, as a small — but crucial — faction of Republican renegades withheld their support from McCarthy.

Three ballots were held; each time, McCarthy failed to notch the 218-vote majority needed to win the speaker’s gavel. In fact, his opposition grew slightly over the course of the first day: 19 Republicans, including conservatives like Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Lauren Boebert (R-CO), voted against McCarthy on the first ballot. By the third ballot, 20 Republicans were voting for Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), their chosen alternative, instead of the ostensible GOP leader.

The House adjourned for the day after McCarthy’s third consecutive rejection, moving into hours of frantic backdoor negotiations as top Republicans searched for a still-elusive consensus. The chamber will gavel back in today at 12 p.m. Eastern Time for its second day of balloting.

Kevin McCarthy’s dreams of being House speaker could be crashing down around him. (Tanya Flores / Agriculture Department)

What happens now?

This is really just one big staring contest, with control of the House floor and the seat second-in-line to the presidency as the prize. Nothing can happen in the House without a speaker — members can’t even be formally sworn in — so the chamber will simply continue voting, ballot after ballot, until someone cobbles together a majority and wins.

That means, eventually, either McCarthy or his rivals will have to give up and give in. At this hour, it remains unclear which side that will be. Here are the possible scenarios going forward:

— Option #1: McCarthy pulls through. Even after his colleagues voted him down three times, McCarthy vowed Tuesday night not to drop out (as he did during the 2015 speakership battle) and told reporters that he would eventually be elected. “Is there anybody [else] in the conference who can win?” he asked rhetorically.

However, his rivals are just as sure they can stick together to deny him the gavel: “Kevin McCarthy is not going to be a speaker,” Rep. Bob Good (R-VA), a ringleader of the anti-McCarthy faction, declared.

It’s possible that some deal could be struck to deliver McCarthy the speakership — there is already talk of the defectors being given prime subcommittee gavels — but it should be noted that McCarthy doesn’t have that much left to give. He conceded to most of the defectors’ rules demands before the voting began, and still not a single one of them flipped. The anti-McCarthy members insist there is nothing he could give them that would change their minds.

McCarthy himself protested this impossible negotiating dynamic during a conference meeting before the votes on Tuesday. But complaining won’t help: he and his whip team need to find a way to offer concessions to pick off at least 16 of the defectors, or McCarthy won’t win the gavel.

— Option #2: Another Republican emerges. If McCarthy makes no traction in the next few ballots after the House returns at noon, and there are no signs any defectors have flipped, some of his supporters will likely begin to waver and allies might start telling McCarthy it’s time to hang it up. Who steps in then?

For now, every possible alternative is proclaiming their support for McCarthy: it’s no mistake that the three people who nominated McCarthy on each of Tuesday’s ballots were House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY), House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), and Jordan — all possible speakers if McCarthy drops out. (The 20 defectors continued to vote for Jordan despite the fact that he doubled down in support of McCarthy.)

However, as time goes on, each member of that trio might start eyeing the gavel. Scalise is probably the likeliest possibility: he has broad support within the conference, including among conservatives from his time as chair of the right-leaning Republican Study Committee, and became a GOP celebrity after being seriously wounded during the 2017 shooting at a Congressional Baseball Game practice.

Is there any real, ideological difference between McCarthy and Scalise? The latter probably has a bit more trust among conservatives, but it’s unlikely they would govern substantively differently. However, it should be made clear how much of the opposition to McCarthy is simply personal. It’s not impossible to imagine the defectors taking McCarthy as a head on a pike and then enough of them voting for Scalise, his deputy, if this drags on long enough.

Steve Scalise (standing) is a possible alternative if McCarthy leaves the speaker’s race. (Andrea Hanks / White House)

— Option #3: A unity speaker. Some of the anti-McCarthy forces insist they would never go for Scalise or Stefanik, however. Seeking a completely fresh slate, Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT) said he would oppose any speaker candidate who had been on the House GOP leadership team in the past decade.

If Rosendale and his right-wing colleagues really stick to that threat, members of the House Republican middle will begin to grow antsy. That’s when it could become possible that a group of GOP moderates will team up with the Democrats to elect a “unity speaker”: a consensus Republican who promises to govern in a more bipartisan fashion.

All it would take for this to happen is six Republicans joining with all 212 Democrats, so it’s a possibility to consider. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) and former Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), both seen as honest brokers across the aisle, are two names that have been floated for this scenario. (The House speaker is not technically required to be a sitting House member.)

This might sound like a Sorkinesque fantasy, and it probably is. But something similar actually happened in two states just on Tuesday: bipartisan coalitions elected a Democrat-turned-Independent as speaker in the Republican-majority Pennsylvania state House and a moderate Republican as speaker in the GOP-led Ohio state House (allowing him to triumph over the far-right lawmaker who had been nominated as the party’s official choice).

Both chambers of the Alaska legislature are also poised to be led by cross-party coalitions when they convene later this month. That doesn’t make a “unity speaker” likely on the nation level, but it does show a precedent for such a scenario on the state level.

— Option #4: Abstentions or absences. To be elected speaker, you need a majority of all the members who voted for someone by name. If every member votes for someone (as they did on each of Tuesday’s ballots), that creates a 218-vote threshold.

However, members of either party could choose to abstain by voting “present” or could simply not show up for a vote — which would lower the threshold McCarthy needs to win, possibly giving him the gavel.

This is a possible escape route for the anti-McCarthy faction, who could strike a deal where they don’t show up to vote (allowing McCarthy or Scalise to win without them technically on record supporting it). It also means some Democrats could give a GOP speaker candidate a helping hand if they grow tired of the repeated voting; so far, however, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) has kept his caucus in line, remaining in the chamber and united behind him.

— Option #5: Changing the rules. There’s one more possible escape route. Technically, the House hasn’t been organized yet or voted on a rules package, so the chamber is going off of general parliamentary procedures. That gives the chamber a lot of leeway to change how the speaker vote is run — as long as a majority of members agree on a certain change.

In other words, 218 members could vote to change the speaker threshold from an outright majority to a plurality. Incredibly, however, in each of Tuesday’s votes, a plurality threshold would have given Jeffries the speakership — since he received 212 votes, compared to 202 for McCarthy and 20 for Jordan. But if 11 of the defectors were to switch to McCarthy and agree to a rules change, McCarthy could be elected by a plurality — allowing him to win without flipping the 16 defectors he needs to reach a majority.

According to congressional scholar Matt Glassman, two previous deadlocked speaker votes — in 1849 and 1856 — ended with the chamber moving to a plurality threshold.

Hakeem Jeffries has managed to keep his caucus united, a contrast to the divided GOP. (Paul Morigi / Brookings Institution)

A Congress of Chaos

The fact that we are even at the point where I am running through these scenarios is incredibly embarrassing for McCarthy, who had hoped to have the speakership sewn up in one day, and the Republican conference at large. Remember: none of this has happened in a century.

Tensions are running very, very high on the GOP side of the aisle. In a day of uncertainty, that was just about the only through-line that ran across Tuesday — from the early-morning conference meeting, when McCarthy said he’d “earned this goddamn job” and Boebert yelled back “bullshit,” to the end of the night, when Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) branded McCarthy’s rivals as the “Taliban 20.”

Late on Tuesday, Gaetz even sent a letter to the Architect of the Capitol protesting the fact that McCarthy’s belongings had already been moved into the speaker’s office, a privilege traditionally accorded to the majority party’s nominee for the post. “How long will he remain there before he is considered a squatter?” Gaetz asked underneath official letterhead, using language that hardly seemed to suggest a compromise is in the offing.

Democrats, meanwhile, are downright gleeful. Three separate Democratic lawmakers posted photos online Tuesday of themselves holding buckets of popcorn, each grinning widely as their Republican counterparts descended into chaos. “Democrats passed historic bills to deliver For The People,” Pelosi, whose historic run atop the House ended Tuesday, boasted in a tweet. “Republicans can’t even elect a speaker.”

But any glee on either side will begin to wear off as the days march on. Technically, since they can’t be sworn in until a speaker is chosen, every member of the House will remain a member-elect while the balloting continues. Many members’ families are in town, waiting for them to be sworn in. (“I just wasted a good vest,” Rep.-elect Summer Lee (D-PA) jokingly grumbled, expecting that she would be sworn in Tuesday. “Are you fucking kidding me?”)

As former Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) noted on Tuesday, constituent services — a huge part of a House member’s job — can’t be performed in the meantime. No bills can be voted on. Congress cannot function.

A speaker will eventually be chosen, but the divisions that brought us to this point will continue. The emboldened House GOP right-wing will continue to hold power over anyone who ends up with the gavel, jeopardizing key votes on funding the government and raising the debt ceiling. The 118th Congress of Chaos has begun.

🤔 Ask Gabe: So, who’s in charge of the House?

Rebecca H. asks: “Who chairs the House before the new speaker is elected?” 

If you were watching Tuesday’s proceedings, you already know the answer: Cheryl Johnson, the Clerk of the House.

As clerk, Johnson’s main role is serving as the official House record-keeper. But every two years, the clerk presides over the chamber until a speaker is chosen, since technically there are no real members of the House. (The members-elect are empowered to vote for speaker because their certificates of election have been presented to the chair.)

Johnson’s powers are effectively limited to recognizing members-elect to nominate speaker candidates, calling new votes for speaker, allowing motions to adjourn, or allowing votes on rules changes such as moving to a plurality threshold.

For those curious about her background, Johnson graduated from the University of Iowa and Howard University Law School before spending nearly 20 years as a top House staffer. She then spent 10 years in the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Government Relations before returning to Congress when Pelosi appointed her as clerk in 2019.

Johnson presiding over the House on Tuesday. (C-SPAN screengrab)
Michael R. asks: “God forbid…but what if something catastrophic happened to the President and VP while there is technically no speaker of the house? Would Cheryl Johnson become the President?”

Johnson may be the House’s temporary presiding officer, but that doesn’t mean she is now in line for the presidency.

Instead, if the president and vice president were to die right now, the speaker of the House would merely be skipped and the presidency would land with the next person in the line of succession: the president pro tempore of the Senate.

Unlike their colleagues across the Capitol, the Senate did manage to organize itself on Tuesday and elect a president pro tem. Traditionally, the post is held by the senior-most senator of the majority party; however, 89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), whose mental acuity has been called into question by several media reports, opted against taking the position.

Instead, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) was elected president pro tem on Tuesday, making history by becoming the first woman to hold the post. The job is largely honorary — ostensibly, they are the Senate’s presiding officer when the vice president is unavailable; in practice, majority party members take turns at the rostrum — but Murray would be your new commander-in-chief if something were to happen to the president and vice president during this speaker-less era.

Patty Murray, second in line. (Senate Democratic Caucus)

In confusing times like these, it can sometimes be helpful to turn to books that can help decode what’s going on by shedding insight on how we got here.

If you want to understand the forces in the House GOP that brought us to this point of chaos, there are three books I recommend:

The first two are insightful portraits of the modern GOP by some of my favorite journalists; the third is the unusually candid autobiography of a former House speaker, one of the funnier political memoirs I’ve read.

All three contain tons of details and anecdotes about all the characters at the center of today’s chaos that will help you trace the beginnings of the ongoing breakdown on the House floor.

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern.

Executive Branch

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 8 a.m. and then travel to Covington, Kentucky, where he will visit the Brent Spence Bridge — which connects Covington to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Biden will announce more than $2 billion in investments from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package that will be going to the Kentucky-Ohio bridge and others across the country. He’ll be joined by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), former Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), and Govs. Andy Beshear (D-KY) and Mike DeWine (R-OH). Watch his speech at 12:45 p.m.

  • McConnell’s presence at the event is very notable. His attendance sends a clear message to House Republicans: while they bicker and threaten to swear off any cooperation with Democrats, he will be appearing with the Democratic president to promote a major legislative package they worked together to pass. It is a very notable show of bipartisanship by the two former Senate colleagues at the same time as the House is riven by division (both between and within party lines).
  • By the way: McConnell, who has been atop the Senate GOP for 16 years, broke the record for longest-serving Senate floor leader on Tuesday. Expect Biden to congratulate McConnell on the record and their work together in the productive 117th Congress, even as the future of bipartisan legislation appears hazy due to the House.

Vice President Harris will also travel to promote the new infrastructure funding being announced, visiting the bridges crossing the Calumet River in Chicago, Illinois. Watch her speech at 2:20 p.m.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and White House infrastructure adviser Mitch Landrieu will hold a press gaggle aboard Air Force One during the flight to Kentucky. Watch at 10:45 a.m.

Legislative Branch

Upon convening, the House will return to the same routine as yesterday: holding roll call votes to elect a speaker until someone is able to cobble together a majority.

Once again, if a speaker is elected, the chamber will then move to swearing in members for the 118th Congress and holding its first two votes of the session: on the new rules package and the Family and Small Business Taxpayer Protection Act, which would rescind new funds appropriated last year for the hiring of 87,000 new IRS employees. Watch today’s House session starting at 12 p.m.

After just returning yesterday for the new Congress, the Senate is already on recess again until January 23.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court is out until Friday.

👋 Before I go...

You’ve probably heard about Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s terrifying collapse during a live NFL game on Monday, when he suffered cardiac arrest after a tackle.

Hamlin remains on a ventilator, in critical condition — although he is reportedly showing signs of improvement.

The incident, of course, is tragic, and our thoughts are all with Hamlin, his family, and his team. But because I always like to find a more hopeful note to end on, I did want to highlight one beautiful response that’s come out of it: a GoFundMe that Hamlin had started to support a toy drive for low-income kids in his Pennsylvania hometown has hit more than $5 million in donations, far exceeding its original goal of $2,500.

Here’s more from Yahoo Sports on the fundraiser. And here’s the GoFundMe link if you want to join the nearly 200,000 donors who have responded to this terrible incident by supporting Hamlin’s chosen cause.

(GoFundMe screengrab)

👍 Thanks for reading.

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Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe