For the first time in 100 years, House has to hold multiple speaker votes: How it works

Until a leader is chosen, lawmakers can't conduct other business.

The House began voting shortly after noon on Tuesday to determine who its next speaker will be -- though, so far, the vote has created more uncertainty around who will ultimately win.

House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California is making his second run at the speakership, but he is facing resistance from enough hardliners in his party that he failed to seize the gavel on the first ballot, with 203 votes to 212 votes for Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

Nineteen Republicans voted for neither nominee; 10 of those voted for Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a protest candidate against McCarthy. It's the first time a speaker hasn't been elected on the first ballot in 100 years.

Republicans, after a disappointing midterm cycle, initially hold a narrow 222-212 majority in the new House, with one vacancy. That means McCarthy will need 218 votes if all members-elect remain present and can only afford four GOP defections -- and he's currently grappling with more than a dozen.

The Californian has already offered significant concessions, though it remains unclear how the final votes will tally.

The House will continue to vote until a speaker is chosen as no other business can be conducted. Here's how it will play out.

How is the House speaker elected?

The speaker is elected after receiving a numerical majority of those members-elect who are present and voting. After the opening of the new Congress on Tuesday, the House clerk read the official number of certificates of election received, which was used to determine the majority.

A simple majority of the 434 House members-elect available to vote on Tuesday is 218 votes. However, that number could change if any members become absent or if some vote "present" instead of for a specific person, which would leave them out of the arithmetic used to choose the House speaker.

Voice votes are used, rather than paper or electronic ballots.

Who conducts the vote?

The House clerk conducts the vote.

The current clerk is Cheryl L. Johnson, who was sworn in by outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Johnson will remain the clerk until the GOP selects a new one.

PHOTO: U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy attends a a joint meeting of Congress with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the U.S. Capitol, Dec. 21, 2022, in Washington.
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy attends a a joint meeting of Congress with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the U.S. Capitol, Dec. 21, 2022, in Washington.
Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What if McCarthy can't get the votes and there's no speaker?

Because McCarthy was not successful on the first ballot, Johnson will likely repeat the roll call voice vote. Multiple ballots could be called until there is majority support for one person.

However, if McCarthy is unable to get enough votes on multiple ballots, the House could adjourn without a speaker.

If the process goes on long enough, the House could approve a resolution to green-light a speaker by a plurality -- as happened in 1856, after some two months and 133 ballots -- but that could pose danger to Republicans given their divisions and narrow majority.

What can happen in the House before there's a speaker?

Essentially nothing.

The House votes for speaker before rules are set for the next Congress, so everything from swearing-in lawmakers to voting on legislation to setting up key committees will be put on hold until that is resolved.

Unless a House majority moves otherwise, all that would be allowed to happen is for Johnson, the clerk, to keep calling votes for speaker, and Johnson would remain clerk for the entirety of the process until a speaker is chosen.

Such a scenario would likely be an embarrassment to the incoming Republican majority, who will govern the chamber with a narrow hold while seeking to be a check on Senate Democrats and the White House, whom they hope to investigate.

A contentious speaker vote that leads to gridlock could also be a preview of Republican struggles to pass government funding and deal with the government's debt limit, which are key obligations of Congress but which divide some conservatives.

Who doesn't support McCarthy

The five Republican members-elect who initially said they wouldn't vote for McCarthy were Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, who announced the rival speaker bid; Matt Gaetz of Florida; Bob Good of Virginia; Matt Rosendale of Montana and Ralph Norman of South Carolina.

In addition, nine other Republicans had said they weren't yet convinced McCarthy should be speaker: Reps. Dan Bishop of North Carolina; Andrew Clyde of Georgia; Eli Crane of Arizona; Paul Gosar of Arizona; Andy Harris of Maryland; Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Chip Roy of Texas. Newly elected Reps. Anna Paulina Luna of Florida and Andy Ogles of Tennessee are also among this group.

In addition to those 14, five other Republicans ultimately didn't vote for McCarthy on the first ballot: Lauren Boebert of Colorado; newly elected Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma; Mike Cloud of Texas; Mary Miller of Illinois and newly elected Keith Self of Texas.

What is their objection?

Broadly speaking, the members who have vowed not to back McCarthy have instead backed a set of demands that aim to shrink the power of the speaker -- and, as a result, increase the influence of other members. Among these stipulations is for an easier-to-use "motion to vacate the chair" to vote to remove the speaker.

The lawmakers have also sought a ban on leadership getting involved in primary elections.

Still, McCarthy has majority Republican support

Almost all of the GOP conference supports McCarthy for speaker, as seen when he won 188 votes last month to be the Republican nominee, despite Biggs' opposition.

"I think he's well situated to win the speakership and have it for the term. I don't think it'll be difficult. He has raised a record revenue for the party. He is great at fundraising. He's been all over the country," one House Republican told ABC News in October. "He's earned it."

If not McCarthy, then who?

There have been some rumors that McCarthy's No. 2, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, who has been supportive of McCarthy for speaker, is ready if an alternative is needed.

While Scalise continues to back McCarthy, multiple sources told ABC News that if that scenario presents itself, Scalise would be open to launching a speakership bid and that some of McCarthy's critics are more open to Scalise winning the gavel.

Conservative critics of McCarthy have floated the idea of rallying around Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a co-founder of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, though Jordan confirmed Monday he's supporting McCarthy and is seeking to chair the House Judiciary Committee.

Is there any historical precedent for this?

The speakership vote is often an uneventful one, wrapping up neatly on the first day of a new Congress. However, the vote has at times taken multiple ballots.

Before Tuesday, the most recent vote to take more than one ballot occurred in 1923, when Frederick Huntington Gillett became speaker after nine rounds.

But the longest vote occurred in 1856, when the speakership wasn't decided until after 133 ballots.

The process, which took two months, catapulted Nathaniel Prentice Banks of Massachusetts to the speakership after he had only served one House term -- though a resolution required the House to allow him to win with a plurality, only the second time members had made such a change.

A member of the American Party, he served just two years as speaker.