On a personal note, January 3rd of an odd numbered year always brings back memories of new beginnings on Capitol Hill. January 3rd is the date established in law for a new Congress to begin at noon. I remember the excitement of my first day working on The Hill. I was 22 years old and joined my new boss, a new Representative, as we walked over from our office to the Capitol for him to take his oath of office. Today a new Congress begins, and we have the added adventure of starting the day not knowing if the Republican Leader, Kevin McCarthy, has the 218 votes needed to be elected Speaker.
The voting for the new Speaker is the first order of business of the new Congress. At noon today any uncompleted legislation officially dies, every bill that will be considered by the new Congress must be reintroduced, starting the legislative process from the beginning. For a possible trivia answer the Congress that ends today was the 117th, and the new Congress will be the 118th.
The tradition is for the two leaders of their party to run for Speaker; hence the candidates will be Kevin McCarthy and Hakeem Jeffries. For the last 100 years the leader of the majority party has been elected Speaker on the first ballot; but 100 years ago on January 3, 1923, it took nine ballots before a Speaker was elected.
The challenge for McCarthy is that in November when the House Republican caucus formally voted on McCarthy to be their Leader the vote was far from unanimous. 31 of the most conservative Republican members voted against the Californian and for Arizona Member Andy Biggs.
Unlike the leader vote that occurs in each caucus, the vote for Speaker occurs before the full House as the Speaker is not a party official, but a constitutional office and second in line for the Presidency, behind the Vice President. The winner must get a majority of those voting. With one vacancy there will be 434 House Members, requiring a 218 vote majority. With only 222 Republicans in the House, McCarthy can only afford to lose 4 Republicans as all Democrats will vote for their new leader Hakeem Jeffries. While most of the 31 Republicans who voted against McCarthy are likely to support him for Speaker on Wednesday, it will only take a handful to deny him the position of Speaker.
This weekend nine House Republicans issued a public letter to McCarthy saying as Leader he had not promised enough in rule changes to please the most conservative members of the House Republican Caucus.
As the Speaker is the leader of the entire House, it is technically possible for Democrats to work with some Republicans to vote for a compromise Speaker. But that isn’t going to happen – Republicans will need to find someone who will get 218 votes if McCarthy can’t get over the finish line.
The biggest thing in McCarthy’s favor is the old political adage: you can’t defeat somebody with nobody, and as of today there is no serious candidate challenging McCarthy. The number two House Republican, Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise, has publicly supported McCarthy but his support has been relatively muted, and he would be the logical next place for Republicans to look if McCarthy is unable to get a majority.
The House can’t start its business until a Speaker is approved. Republicans have a long agenda of issues ranging from investigations into Hunter Biden to the alleged politicization of the Justice Department. Nearly all the House Republicans broke with their Senate colleagues and voted against last month’s Omnibus Spending Bill. Now that they control the House they will need to pass a budget for the US Government by the October 1 deadline. With Democrats still in control of the Senate the process will need to produce a compromise spending plan or continue spending at the levels House Republicans opposed in last year’s Omnibus Spending legislation.
Besides the risk of a government shutdown caused by a failure to pass spending bills by October 1, the biggest challenge may be the need to increase the national debt ceiling later this year. The debt ceiling vote is very difficult for Republicans yet has real consequences for global markets.
As the drama unfolds in the House to elect a Speaker, today could be an interesting day in US House history.