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House Speaker vote: What happens if McCarthy can’t get the votes he needs? The voting system explained

With Congress opening up for the new year a crucial vote is being held on the new Speaker for the House of Representatives.

With Congress opening up for the new year a crucial vote is being held on the new Speaker for the House of Representatives.
Nathan HowardGetty

The new term of Congress was supposed to begin 3 January once the important offices of state were filled. One of these is the Speaker of the House of Representatives, important for this part of Congress as the Republicans regained control of the chamber for 2023.

The election has been caused by the stepping down of Democrat Nancy Pelosi, although with a Republican-controlled House there was no chance of her being reelected.

Follow along live:

How is the speaker of the House elected?

All the members of the House of Representatives are balloted to choose the speaker. If all 435 members of the chamber are in attendance then 218 votes are needed to secure the position, a simple majority.

However, members in attendance can vote “present”, which in effect skips the vote. This brings down the voting threshold needed for the speaker to win. Nancy Pelosi was able to win her election to the role in 2017 and 2019 with majorities over the threholds, which were 217 and 216 respectively.

If the threshold is not met then there will be as many votes needed until a majority is found. So far McCarthy has not been successful in the first two days of voting, so lawmakers will continue to try and break the deadlock on Friday.

There is no statutory requirement for a break between the votes. Tuesday and Wednesday three attempts were made each, but then the session was adjourned. The last time it took multiple votes to secure a majority in the House Speaker election was 1923. Votes will continue until a majority can be found; in 1856 it took 113 votes for a majority to be reached.

Will McCarthy be able to find a way to victory?

Californian Rep. Kevin McCarthy is the favourite for the position, but is facing a stern challenge from the far-right of the Republican party. As the party achieved an underwhelming 222 seats in the midterm elections, he had 19-20 votes against him by members of his own party on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

A letter released on Sunday, signed by nine Republicans, said Mr McCarthy’s concessions come “almost impossibly late to address continued deficiencies”.

After the 13th vote with no winner on Friday, the members have adjourned and it seems like vote no. 14 could be the decisive one with McCarthy accpeting a proposal suggesting there will be a mechanism so Republicans will be allowed to oust McCarthy easily if they are dissatisfied.

The House cannot conduct any business until the speaker is elected.