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What is the longest it has taken to elect a Speaker of the House?

After thirteen failed attempts this week, Rep. Kevin McCarthy will hope to conclude the election for Speaker of the House of Representatives.

After eleven failed attempts on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Rep. Kevin McCarthy will hope to conclude the election for Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Nathan HowardGetty

For the first time in 100 years, the House of Representatives failed to elect a new Speaker on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as the Republicans were split on the future of the party leadership.

It’s been a tough week for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, leader of the majority party, as 20 members of his own caucus opted not to vote for him. After three unsuccessful attempts to elect a new leader on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the sessions were adjourned, with the process set to continue at midday on Friday.

The last time this happened was 1923, when it took nine rounds of votes for Rep. Frederick Gillett to be elected Speaker.

But the most notorious case of a prolonged Speaker election came in 1856, when the 34th Congress required 133 votes to come to a decision. With the slavery debate taking a key role in contemporary political consciousness and the recent dissolution of the Whig Party, the chamber was deeply divided and it took two months for a Speaker to be elected.

Follow along:

Eventually, Rep. Nathaniel Banks was voted in as the new Speaker and the House was able to begin its legislative business. When he first addressed members from the Speaker’s chair, Banks admitted that his role was “now environed with unusual difficulties” as a result of the prolonged election process.

His words may prove prescient for McCarthy and the Republicans as they attempt to control the House with only a slender majority.

How long can it take to elect a Speaker of the House?

While that two-month vote may stretch credulity, in theory there is no mechanism preventing a House Speaker vote from going on indefinitely. In the House nothing can begin until a new Speaker is elected, so no members of the 118th Congress have yet been sworn in.

The House cannot set the rules to govern itself – a feature of the House not shared in the Senate – and cannot begin to consider legislation or bring bills to the floor.

Once their control of the House was secured in the 2022 midterms, many Republican members promised to enact a number of House investigations into elements of the Democratic Party and even President Biden. There have been rumours of impeaching proceedings against officials and sweeping changes to key House committees.

All of this is on hold until a new Speaker is elected. McCarthy and the Republican leadership will be desperate to find a compromise that unites the party after claiming control of a chamber for the first time in four years.


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