A vote against Kevin McCarthy for speaker would be unprecedented.

Malek Sherif

On the first day of Congress, the House of Representatives has its usual show and makes a short-term promise that this Congress will work better than the last one. If the House fails to pick a speaker on the first vote this year and a floor brawl breaks out that is unparalleled in modern history, that optimism might be destroyed instantly.

A handful of Republicans who don't fit the mold have promised to oppose Kevin McCarthy, the party's speaker pick. Mr. McCarthy has a razor-thin majority; he needs only five Republicans to vote against him to lose the gavel. This is not something trivial. Since the end of the Civil War, the House has only failed to elect a speaker on the first vote once, and that was in 1923.

The Constitution mandates that the House choose a speaker. If this is allowed to devolve into anarchy, the whole body will suffer, and the public will lose faith in the new Congress. With time on his side, Mr. McCarthy can still negotiate with his detractors and do whatever was necessary to win the speakership on the first ballot. Otherwise, a few Republicans' power grab for their benefit might create a mockery of the institution and further solidify the belief that the party is unable to rule.

If the vote doesn't go through, Mr. McCarthy or the next speaker will be severely weakened. Since the House operates on a majority basis, the speaker's authority stems from his or her ability to muster the necessary 218 votes to move legislation forward.

It will be immediately apparent that Republicans cannot be relied upon to fulfill the body's basic responsibilities, such as funding the government or preventing a credit default by lifting the debt ceiling, both of which will be necessary later this year if the Republicans are unable to muster the votes for a speaker.

If Mr. McCarthy doesn't win on the first try, it can be days before we have a new speaker. No matter who ends up as the party's leader, the long show would hurt the Republican majority in the House and the institution itself in a way that can't be fixed.

The election of a speaker is the most important activity of the House, as stipulated by the Constitution. Until this issue is settled, nothing further can be done. Before officially adopting the rules governing the House, members cast ballots to choose a speaker. They won't even be sworn in until a speaker is chosen, so the new Congress will have some time to deliberate.

Without formal rules of order, the House must rely on established custom and established parliamentary practice. To be chosen speaker, one needs the support of the majority of those present and eligible to vote, as was done in previous elections.

Since votes cast by those who are absent or who vote "present" are not included in the tally, the required number of votes to achieve a majority may be reduced in these cases. It's a slow procedure even when everything goes perfectly. Over an hour, all 435 participants are called out in alphabetical order, and they all take turns yelling the name of their choosing.

The Congressional Research Service reported that from 1945 to 1995, not a single member voted for anybody other than their party's candidate, even though members are not obligated to vote for anyone, not even another House member. As a result of the increasing polarisation in American politics, however, some party members have chosen to reject their candidate and instead cast their ballots for an independent.

Recent protest votes haven't stopped a new speaker from being chosen, but if Tuesday's vote fails, the House will be in a state of uncertainty that has never been seen before.

Until a new speaker is chosen and sworn in, the House will be unable to do its business. Therefore, a new vote would be the first order of business. One hundred years ago, when the first vote failed to elect a speaker, nine votes cast over three days were necessary. As late as the 133rd ballot, the speakership in 1856 was decided.

If the vote fails, Mr. McCarthy and his opponents would be left with few procedural alternatives. Nominating speeches are allowed before a roll call vote, during which any member of the House may speak in support of a candidate. While nominations are normally short, there might be a chance for Mr. McCarthy's supporters to argue for his election as speaker.

Members of the house may employ lengthy nomination speeches as a stalling tactic as they try to negotiate a compromise in real-time. However, the process may also turn into a circus on the floor, with Republican opponents seizing the chance to cast doubt on Mr. McCarthy's qualifications for the position.

Legislators may vote to alter the current method of selecting a speaker. The House has twice approved a plurality vote for a speaker rather than a majority vote. Both occurred before the Civil War and only after a prolonged impasse lasting weeks or, in the case of 1856, months.

Alternatively, a motion to adjourn the House to a later time or date might be made. Republicans may call a halt to the vote to conduct a meeting and try to settle the issue among themselves. However, a majority vote is needed to adjourn the House, which may be challenging. It's unclear that Democrats in the House would want to help Mr. McCarthy, and it's possible that the Republicans who are resisting him don't want the voting to be halted.

McCarthy may have to decide whether to keep members voting on the floor as he tries to forge a compromise or to convene an even more unexpected closed-door gathering of his conference in the event of a deadlock. Maybe the only way out for him is to keep voting with those who are opposing the decision of their conference and see if he can win the test of wills.

With a simple majority, the House may pass almost any bill. You won't be able to do much without it. It's not hard to see the group going through numerous rounds of voting before settling on a winner or giving up and leaving.

Mr. McCarthy was elected speaker of the House by a large margin among Republicans. His opponents are aware of their numerical disadvantage yet continue to fight anyhow. Former Representative Andy Biggs is running as a nominal opponent.

Mr. Biggs has been vigorously soliciting money for his campaign, but he has zero chance of becoming speaker; if Mr. McCarthy fails, another Republican will seize the gavel. But the goal of the agitators isn't to have one of their own become a speaker; rather, they want to undermine Mr. McCarthy or whoever becomes a speaker. A possible goal is to make the target feel humiliated.

The dissenters think that if they had a weak speaker, they would gain greater influence. If you want to know the truth, I can guarantee that nobody would gain from it.

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With over a decade of writing about news and stories for the local paper, Malek Sherif has a uniquely friendly voice that shines through in his newest collection of local news, which explores the importance we place on the legacy.

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