How House Republicans failed to elect a speaker

Intraparty strife, slim GOP majority have led to an impasse in the speaker race.

October 19, 2023, 8:10 PM

It took Goldilocks three tries to find the porridge that was “just right.” But on Thursday, House Republicans vacillated on whether a third House speaker vote would be to their taste. Initially, some Republicans moved toward a potential plan to formally empower acting Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry to lead the House for a period of time. But that proposal met fierce opposition, including from some in the party leadership. With events moving quickly as of 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, the House could still end up voting a third time for speaker as soon as Friday morning.

These latest developments came after the House twice failed to elect a speaker this week after a small group of renegade Republicans precipitated the ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Oct. 3. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the official GOP speaker nominee, fell 18 votes short of a majority on the second ballot on Wednesday, one vote worse than on the first ballot on Tuesday. In 2023 alone, the House has now successfully elected a speaker once in 17 tries after it took the body 15 ballots to elect McCarthy in January.

The ongoing strife within the Republican conference has many origins. Unlike McCarthy, Jordan’s views sit well to the right of those of the average House Republican, which complicated his efforts to consolidate support. More broadly, Republicans hold only a narrow majority, which means any intraparty disagreement is magnified because a few holdouts can easily grind things to a halt. These circumstances combined with larger forces that have in recent years affected party unity in Congress to produce paralysis.

We saw how this worked in January, when a group of anti-establishment conservatives nearly halted McCarthy’s election. Then this week, Jordan faced a total number of holdouts — around 20 on each of two ballots — similar in size to the group who voted against McCarthy. And while the proposal to empower McHenry may happen, the same forces that hindered speaker elections could also impede Republicans looking to McHenry as an off-ramp (or looking to elect any other speaker, for that matter).

How House GOP divisions have so far blocked a Jordan speakership

Looking at the voting breakdown across both ballots, Jordan may not have seemed that far away from victory. He needed 217 votes to win in the 433-member House, where Republicans hold a narrow nine-seat advantage (with two vacancies), and he received 200 votes on his first ballot and 199 on his second. If Jordan had been closer to the winning mark, he could’ve even benefited from a few Republicans voting “present,” which lowers the number of votes needed to win because the majority threshold is based on the total votes for named candidates. But as he came no closer than 17 votes, that strategic consideration — which helped McCarthy win in January — never came into play.

As it turned out, Republicans’ internal speaker nomination vote following McCarthy’s ouster portended Jordan’s troubles. In the first GOP conference vote on Oct. 11, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise narrowly defeated Jordan 113 to 99, but Scalise withdrew from consideration a day later in the face of opposition to his candidacy. On Oct. 13, Jordan won the GOP speaker nod, but his victory was far from overwhelming: Jordan bested Georgia Rep. Austin Scott 124 to 81, but Scott had only entered the speaker race just before the vote to provide official competition to Jordan.

These secret-ballot votes marked the most divisive party caucus balloting for speaker over the past three decades, rivaled only by Nancy Pelosi’s support from just over two-thirds of the Democratic caucus after the 2016 election to remain Democratic leader. After he won the GOP speaker nomination, Jordan asked for another secret-ballot vote to test his potential floor support, in which 55 Republicans said they wouldn’t support him. Not nearly that many voiced their opposition publicly in the ensuing floor votes, but enough did to stop him from winning the speakership, at least as of Thursday.

Looking more broadly at House Republicans, the blocs of opposition that McCarthy and Jordan faced in speaker elections nine months apart are roughly the ideological inverse of each other, based on DW-NOMINATE, a political science tool that measures members' views based on their voting records. (DW-NOMINATE’s first dimension describes members’ relative liberalism or conservatism, and, in our current era, the second dimension reveals to some extent how closely aligned members are with their party’s establishment.) The 20 Republicans who voted against McCarthy at least once back in January mostly sit in the most conservative and anti-establishment corner of the party, whereas Jordan’s opponents primarily come from the more moderate and more establishment section of the party.

Of the 24 Republicans who voted against Jordan at least once, just four hold more conservative views than the median House Republican. Somewhat similarly, just eight of those 24 had more anti-establishment records than the median member. By comparison, the 20 Republicans who voted against McCarthy at least once in January all rank among the most conservative and most anti-establishment third of the party’s membership.

Still, there was one clear outlier among the Jordan opponents: Colorado Rep. Ken Buck. He was the only member of the 45 or so representatives in the very conservative and anti-establishment House Freedom Caucus to vote against Jordan, who co-founded the HFC. This made Buck the lone HFC member to vote for McCarthy in January but against Jordan in October (26 or so members voted for both McCarthy and Jordan; the HFC does not publicize its membership list). Unusual among Republicans in his ideological vicinity, Buck opposed promoting an election denier to the speakership, as Jordan voted to overturn the 2020 election results.

Republicans who occupy more competitive turf were also somewhat more likely to vote against Jordan. Most notably, of the 18 Republicans representing seats that President Biden would have carried in 2020, six voted for someone else. Half of those were New York members: Reps. Anthony D’Esposito (Biden won his seat by nearly 15 points), Mike Lawler (Biden +10) and Nick LaLota (Biden by less than 1 point). A fourth New Yorker who voted against Jordan, Rep. Andrew Garbarino, holds a seat former President Trump would’ve won by roughly 2 points.

Now, some Republicans on redder turf also voted against Jordan at least once. Overall, 11 Republicans in seats that Trump would’ve carried by at least 15 points cast a ballot for someone besides Jordan, but those defectors were predominantly establishment-oriented Republicans who expressed frustration with the insurgent-minded Republicans who ousted McCarthy and with how Scalise fared after the party nominated him. Tellingly, five of these 11 members had endorsed Scalise ahead of the first Republican conference speaker nomination vote on Oct. 11: Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, Jake Ellzey of Texas, Drew Ferguson of Georgia, Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania and Steve Womack of Arkansas. Most of them voted for Scalise during the balloting, although Kelly prompted some laughs on the House floor when he voted for former House Speaker John Boehner on the second ballot.

The larger forces at play in the latest speaker impasse

In both the January and October speaker votes, McCarthy and Jordan could only afford a small number of defections because of the GOP’s slender majority. Convincing around 20 holdouts was a huge challenge for McCarthy, and could prove impossible for Jordan. At the very least, sizable opposition in both speaker fights prompted multiple ballots, which before this year had not happened since 1923. In fact, the current impasse marks just the eighth multiballot speaker election since 1839, when the House moved from casting secret ballots to recorded voice votes to elect a speaker. And it’s the first time this has happened twice during the same Congress.

Of course, we’re a long way from reaching the incredible number of ballots some Congresses needed to elect a speaker before the Civil War. Multiballot speaker elections became exceedingly rare in part because, since then, the parties have positioned the party caucus (or conference, as the GOP calls it) as the designated site for intraparty fights; once disagreements were ironed out, the party would go to the floor (mostly) united. Even in closely divided Congresses where a new majority party had just taken power and leadership was highly contested in the party caucus, like the 51st Congress (1889-1891), majority members largely stuck with their party’s nominee on the floor until the late 1990s.

But over the past 25 years or so, that system has become less reliable as members have become more willing to vote against the party nominee in the public setting of the House floor. The decline in party discipline has many fathers, including the decreased power of committees and increased sway of party leadership, which has made the speaker a greater target of intraparty frustration. Other factors include the larger universe of fundraising outlets for candidates and outside groups since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. On top of all this, there’s the internet-based media environment that members can use to build their own following by grandstanding — a descriptor many have applied to Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz’s actions to single-handedly precipitate McCarthy’s ouster in the first place.

Republicans may be struggling more with this new reality than Democrats. That’s likely because the GOP has greater suspicion toward government action, which has made Republicans both more skeptical of their own leadership and more amenable to legislative inaction. It’s true that Democrats in the majority have seen some substantial defections of their own in recent years. In 2019, 15 Democrats broke with Pelosi on the lone ballot for speaker, but the party had a somewhat larger majority than the GOP currently enjoys. In 2021, Democrats again managed to reelect Pelosi as speaker despite her past difficulties and a slim majority similar to Republicans’ current edge (her signaling that she intended to step down after that Congress probably smoothed her path to reelection, to be sure). But in 2023, long-term trends in reduced party discipline, GOP factional strife and a razor-thin majority created the perfect storm for historically tough speaker races and even the unprecedented ousting of a sitting speaker.

False starts and uncertain next steps

In the face of the GOP’s current difficulties, some House Republicans proposed an unusual off-ramp: Formally empowering acting Speaker Pro Tempore McHenry to lead the House for the next few months so that it can conduct legislative business. Just before a Republican conference meeting on Thursday morning, Jordan announced his support for the interim proposal, seemingly a signal that he wouldn’t seek a third speaker vote for the time being. In theory, the move would have given Jordan time to shore up internal support for a future speaker vote, as he would remain the party’s speaker nominee through McHenry’s interim term. But more broadly, some in the House GOP viewed this approach as the only way out of the morass.

However, the proposal ran into opposition at the Thursday conference meeting, and its future prospects remain unclear. Some hard-line members had expressed sharp opposition to the plan beforehand, with Texas Rep. Chip Roy claiming that Republicans “might as well be the Whigs” if they implement it — a reference to the pre-Civil War major party that fell apart in the 1850s. Party leaders have split over the interim plan, too. On one side, Scalise, Majority Whip Tom Emmer and Conference Chair Elise Stefanik opposed it on the grounds that it would risk a coalition-style arrangement with Democrats, who would likely have to assist if a resolution to empower McHenry were to pass. But Jordan and McCarthy, who remains influential, both spoke in favor of the proposal.

After the party meeting, Jordan said there would be a third vote, which could happen Friday morning. Yet the heated disagreements within the GOP about how to proceed may continue, as Jordan’s meeting with his intraparty opponents appears to have gone poorly. With a narrow majority and reduced party unity, the challenges that have brought House Republicans to this point aren’t going away. That means they could find themselves at yet another impasse when the House tries once more to permanently elect a speaker.

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