Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is struggling to secure the 218 votes he needs to be elected speaker of the House in January.
Because voters this month handed the GOP a wafer-thin majority, just a small bloc of conservative rebels could deny the California Republican the speaker’s gavel at the start of the new Congress. Already, several McCarthy foes have declared they will not vote for him under any circumstance.
“He doesn’t have the votes,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus. “Some of the stages of grief include denial, so there will be some denial and then there’ll be the stage of bargaining where people are trying to figure out … will there be some kind of consensus candidate that emerges.”
It’s put McCarthy in a precarious position: He’s won his party’s nomination for speaker while fighting for his political life.
In this game of chicken, if the conservatives don’t blink and McCarthy refuses to back down, it could result in a chaotic floor fight with House members taking multiple votes for speaker — something that has not happened in a century.
Here are other examples throughout history where the speaker’s gavel didn’t come easy.
1855-56: The longest speaker election ever
Dec. 3, 1855, started like any other opening day of a new Congress. The House was called to order at noon and the chamber moved to the first order of business: electing the speaker.
But there was no favorite for the job. Twenty-one candidates received votes for speaker on the first ballot, with none getting the majority needed. “There was no choice,” the Congressional Globe printed that day. The House held three more unsuccessful votes for speaker that day before adjourning just after 2 p.m.
In the weeks that followed, the House was in gridlock as no candidate could clinch the votes needed. It wasn’t until the 133rd ballot that Rep. Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts was elected speaker of the House, defeating Rep. William Aiken of South Carolina by a vote of 103 to 100.
The date was Feb. 2, 1856, two months after the first speaker vote.
The House concluded business that day by unanimously adopting a resolution thanking the clerk for presiding “during the arduous and protracted contest for Speaker.”
1923: The last time the speaker vote went multiple ballots
When the House gathered on Dec. 4, 1923, Frederick Gillett sought re-election as speaker. The Republican from Massachusetts had served in the role since 1919 and his party had maintained control of the chamber.
But after the first ballot, Gillett did not have the votes needed. Three more votes were held and each time enough Progressive Republicans supported other candidates, blocking Gillett from regaining the gavel.
“Mr. Clerk, it seems entirely evident that no good purpose can be served by having another ballot tonight,” Republican leader Nicholas Longworth said on the floor before the chamber adjourned that night.
At issue were rule changes that Progressive Republicans wanted. For two days, the group refused to budge and on a few ballots, the Democrats’ nominee even led in the tally.
Longworth eventually struck a deal with the progressives and on the ninth ballot, Gillett was re-elected as speaker.
There have only been 14 instances in congressional history where it took more than two ballots for a nominee to get a majority. The first 13 happened before the Civil War.
“The Civil War established this norm … where the parties agreed to air their dirty laundry in caucus but then to coalesce around the party leader, whoever got a majority in caucus,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prof. Charles Stewart, co-author of the book “Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government.”
2013: Conservatives plot coup against Boehner
In 2013, the Tea Party movement that had swept Ohio Republican John Boehner into the speaker’s office turned on Boehner himself.
A band of 20 conservative rebels — furious that Boehner had ousted some of them from committees and cut a fiscal deal that raised taxes on the wealthy — huddled in a Capitol Hill apartment the night before the speaker’s vote and plotted a coup against their own leader, according to author Tim Alberta’s book, “American Carnage.”
Among those in the room were Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, Alberta writes. Republicans had won 234 seats in the 2012 election; if 17 Republicans opposed Boehner, they argued, conservatives could prevent him from getting the 218 votes he needed to remain speaker.
But some suspected there were Boehner spies in the room, and the conservatives began pointing fingers at each other, according to Alberta. Labrador said they actually needed to secure 30 dissenters because Boehner would surely be able to flip some of those no votes, telling the group, “We need 30 to get to 17 because half of the people in this room are going to cave tomorrow.”
Labrador was right. When their names were called on the House floor the next day, some involved in the plot got cold feet and did not vote, voted present or cast their ballot for Boehner. In the end, only 12 Republicans refused to support Boehner.
Two years later, Boehner suffered 25 GOP defections in the speaker vote — the largest number of defections in 100 years — but he would easily win the speaker’s gavel with 216 votes due to a number of members missing the vote; Democrats had attended the funeral of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and several other lawmakers couldn’t get to Washington due to bad weather.
In September 2015, Boehner announced his resignation, after a conservative rabble-rouser, Rep. Mark Meadows, filed a “motion to vacate the chair” that would have forced yet another floor vote on the unpopular speaker.
2018: How Pelosi put down a rebellion
Typically, when a party retakes the majority, the minority leader will have a clear path to the speakership. But in 2018, after 16 years in power, Nancy Pelosi faced a rump rebellion from a new generation of Democrats who wanted her to step aside.
The week of Thanksgiving that year, 16 rebels in Pelosi’s Democratic Caucus signed a letter announcing their opposition to her as speaker. Other Democrats who did not sign contemplated challenging Pelosi for the job.
“As we head toward the 116th Congress and reclaim our Democratic majority, we believe more strongly than ever that the time has come for new leadership in our caucus,” wrote the 16 Democrats, including Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Seth Moulton, D-Mass.
If her foes held the line, they would have enough votes to block her on the House floor. But Pelosi, who calls herself a “master” legislator and vote counter, was only getting started.
The first female speaker of the House began picking off her opponents one by one. Pelosi huddled in her office with one potential challenger, Rep. Marcia Fudge. The Ohio Democrat would later endorse Pelosi and be named chair of a subcommittee overseeing elections. Pelosi also won over Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., by vowing to prioritize his Medicare proposal and work with him on infrastructure.
And she secured support from a handful of holdouts including Rep. Ryan, who challenged her in 2016, by agreeing to a deal on term limits for the party’s top leaders.
In the end, 15 Democrats broke with Pelosi: a dozen voted for other people and three voted present. But it wasn’t enough to block her from serving a second time as speaker of the House.
“Every two years, we gather in this chamber for a sacred ritual,” she said upon accepting the gavel. “Under the dome of this temple of democracy, the Capitol of the United States, we renew the great American experiment.”