With the assumption that the remaining uncalled races in the House will impact the size of the Republican Conference in the 118th Congress but not the status of their majority, House Republicans will move forward this week with their Organizing Conference. As a reminder, their schedule is as follows:
Monday, November 14: Leadership candidate and Rules forum
Tuesday, November 15: Leadership elections (Speaker, Leader, Whip, NRCC, etc.)
Wednesday, November 16: Conference Rules (preview of House Rules) and Steering Committee map
Thursday, November 17: TBD if another session will be needed
Friday, November 18: Questionnaire is sent to each chairmanship candidate
Early December: Steering Committee interviews (and votes*) on chairmanship candidates
Early January: Steering Committee meets (and votes*) on rank-and-file committee assignments
*While the Steering Committee votes on chairmanships and committee assignments, the winning candidates are presented to the House Republican Conference as recommendations. They then must be ratified by the Conference via a simple majority vote.
Much has been made of the tight control for the House. Yet, historical Republican Majorities of the modern era (post-1994) have almost always been lean. From 1997-2005, a period of four Congresses, House Republicans controlled the House with less than 230 Members. The 107th Congress was particularly lean following George W. Bush’s first election, with House Republicans holding just 221 seats and Speaker Denny Hastert guiding a four seat Majority.
Calls for Delay
Since election day, there have been a few calls for a delay in the House Republican Leadership elections and Organizing Conference(s), mostly by members of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) and several outside pundits. One of their contentions is that votes should not be held until the exact number of House Republicans in the 118th Congress is known. In theory, a candidate whose race has not yet been called could vote in the Organizing Conference(s) only to then lose his or her election.
Ensuring the top Leadership posts are designated early in the Lame Duck allows for House Republicans to begin the important and time-sensitive planning necessary for the new Congress. Time lost ultimately disadvantages House Republicans vis-à-vis a Democratic Senate and a Democratic Administration. Without designated leaders, the Conference would be unable to negotiate with outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi over committee ratios, office budgets, and physical spaces. Vetting of candidates and new staff for institutional offices like the Clerk of the House, Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), House Sergeant-at-Arms (SAA), House Chaplain, and others, would also be delayed. And finally, pushing back Leadership elections would prevent the constitution of the House Republican Steering Committee, delaying interviews and elections of potential chairmen. While committee budgets and staff increase at least twofold from the minority to majority, new staff could not be hired for committees until chairmen had been elected.
Despite the HFC’s focus on delaying Leadership elections, we see no likelihood of that happening. Instead, Kevin McCarthy will become House Republicans’ Speaker-designee this week and Steve Scalise their Majority Leader-designee. The House Republican Conference elects their Leadership designees for each new Congress during the preceding lame duck by simple majority vote (via secret ballot). There is little question that McCarthy and Scalise have a majority of support from the Conference.
What is theoretically in question is the vote to elect a Speaker on the House floor on January 3, 2023. The Speaker is the only Leadership position of the House of Representatives that requires a vote on the House floor (an absolute majority of “the total number of votes cast for a person by name”). That number may be less than a majority of the full membership of the House (218) because of vacancies, absentees, or Members answering “present.”
Since 2013, a vocal minority of the Majority Party has used the Speaker’s floor vote as leverage against the would-be-Speaker. Given that Members of the Minority Party are unlikely to vote for the Majority’s candidate, this vote must be carried solely by Members of the Majority Party. Depending on the size of the incoming House Republican Majority, Kevin McCarthy could lose upwards of half a dozen votes from Members of his own Party and still reach the requisite absolute majority to become Speaker of the House. In fact, the House has elected a Speaker by less than 218 votes three times in the last 25 years: Newt Gingrich in 1997, John Boehner in 2015, and Nancy Pelosi in 2021.
To do this, McCarthy will need to bend but not break. As compared to 2015 when John Boehner resigned from Speaker, McCarthy is now running from a position of strength within the House Republican Conference. He is armed with a well-seasoned staff, an agenda for the Majority via the Commitment to America, support from each ideological element of the Conference, and a juggernaut of a fundraising apparatus. In short, McCarthy is well-positioned to ascend to Speaker and few others within the Conference can match his influence.
The HFC, however, could attempt to play spoiler on the House floor. There is tenuous precedent for the House not electing a Speaker on Opening Day. In 1923, nine ballots were required before a Speaker was elected. But because the House is not a continuous body like the Senate (i.e., it must be reconstituted at the start of each new Congress), the lack of a Speaker would leave the Chamber in limbo. The longer such a state of limbo, the longer House Republicans would go without conducting oversight, reducing spending, or any of their other legislative priorities. Further, there’s no clear alternative to McCarthy. The idea that a candidate of the HFC’s choosing could gain an absolute majority of votes on the House floor is unrealistic, at best.
Expect McCarthy, therefore, to give Members-whether HFC, Republican Study Committee (RSC), Republican Governance Group, or otherwise-ample opportunity to change Conference and House Rules this week. Requests to date include reinstatement of the so-called “Hastert Rule” which would require the support of a majority of the Conference to bring legislation to the House floor; receding to the original language of House Rules regarding the ability of any Member of the House to offer a motion to vacate the Chair on the floor; and various other ideas to decentralize power historically vested within the Leadership. Each of these changes would require a simple majority vote of the Conference to pass (House Rules are then codified on the floor by simple majority vote). Whether the HFC can convince approximately 110 of their colleagues of their arguments remains to be seen.
OUTLOOK/ANALYSIS. In the end, McCarthy is in a similar position as Nancy Pelosi was at this time in 2020. Pelosi was headed into a historically small Democratic Majority and had to thread the needle within her Caucus to ensure she could be elected to the position of Speaker on Opening Day. Pelosi provided successful in winning the Speaker vote in 2021 with 216 votes and then leading her razor-thin four seat Majority to a series of legislative wins. We believe Kevin McCarthy will prove similarly successful on Opening Day and be able to adeptly guide his thin Majority.