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McCarthy's struggles point to troubles ahead for his office, his party and Congress

Newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy delivers a speech after he was elected on the 15th ballot on Jan. 7.
Olivier Douliery
AFP via Getty Images
Newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy delivers a speech after he was elected on the 15th ballot on Jan. 7.

As the House of Representatives began grinding through what would be 15 roll-call votes for a speaker this week, Republican nominee Kevin McCarthy of California said he did not "have a problem" with setting a record for such votes.

That may have been simply an appeal for patience. McCarthy could not have been serious about breaking the actual record, which remains the 133 ballots needed in 1855. He may have been thinking of the highest number needed since that record, which was a relatively modest nine rounds of votes in 1923.

And one suspects he also knows that needing several days and multiple votes to become speaker means he does indeed have a problem.

If the first week of the 118th Congress has been any indication, Speaker McCarthy is going to have many adventures at the helm of the House's new Republican majority. His term is expected to last two years, but one of the concessions he negotiated to secure the job makes it relatively easy for even one member of the House to call for a vote to replace him.

He must also know that history has not been kind to speakers who needed more than one ballot to grasp the big gavel.

That vote mentioned above that happened in 1923 was the only other instance of a speaker needing even a second round of voting in the past century. The speaker was Frederick H. Gillett of Massachusetts, who would hang on for two more years and move to the Senate.

Before Gillett you have to go all the way back to the dramatic confrontations over slavery in the antebellum period, when throw-downs over who would be the speaker were not infrequent. In those years, the House often had multiple parties, making it difficult for any party's leader to get a majority.

And once one got the job, he usually did not last long in it.

In the first 72 years of Congress, a dozen speakers needed multiple ballots. Eight of them would serve only one term as speaker.

Still the champion: "Bobbin Boy" Banks in 1855

The holder of that 1855 record for most votes was a member from Massachusetts named Nathaniel Banks but known for his alliterative nickname "bobbin boy" (a holdover from his childhood job in a textile factory). Banks, just 39, was a member of the American Party, known for its nativist views on immigration.

The party was also known for resisting questions with claims of innocence. "I know nothing" about the party, they said, so they came to be known as "Know Nothings." Despite that, in their heyday they had about a third of the seats in the House in 1855.

Like most New Englanders, Banks was opposed to the expansion of slavery in the western states and territories. That long-simmering issue had been thrust to the forefront in his day by the frightening violence among abolitionist and pro-slavery settlers along the Kansas-Missouri border.

Some of that passion was manifest around the Capitol as well, with members sometimes coming to blows. Just a few months after Banks became speaker, Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner was beaten to the floor in the Senate chambers by a cane-wielding Rep. Preston Brooks from South Carolina, an incident depicted in many a high school history textbook.

The focus on slavery made allies of Banks and the fledgling Republican Party that was rising in the Midwest from the ashes of the old Whig Party. But there were Democrats and several other parties in the mix, and Banks was just one of 21 candidates nominated on the first day of voting. Midway through that December, on the 33rd ballot, Banks pulled into the lead for the first time over a pro-slavery Democrat from Illinois.

(It should be noted that in this era, Congress was following the original schedule from the Constitution. A Congress elected in November of an even-numbered year would be in office as of the following March, but would not actually convene to do business until the next December. The current schedule, adopted in 1933 by constitutional amendment, convenes each new Congress on Jan. 3 of the odd-numbered year.)

So when Banks was seeking the speakership the voting began in December (1855) and ran into early February (1856). Late in the game that winter, Banks' ultimate Democratic rival emerged: William Aiken Jr. of South Carolina. Aiken consolidated the Southern votes and seemed destined to win as the field was winnowed to the final few. Aiken was thought to have the commitments of several members whose previous choice had dropped out, but not all of those switches came through. Banks prevailed 103-100.

The long shadow of slavery

The Banks contest stands out for its length and backdrop of "Bleeding Kansas," but three other speakership contests required more than a dozen rounds of voting to reach resolution in the 19th century. Each of them was also roiled by the issue of slavery.

One would be the last speaker vote prior to the Civil War. It took place over two months beginning in December 1859, at the conclusion of Banks' two years in the job. It took 44 voting rounds to choose William Pennington of New Jersey, the first Republican ever elected speaker. Later in the year Pennington first took the gavel, his party would elect its first president, Abraham Lincoln.

Needless to say, the overriding concern of that 36th Congress was the threat of civil war, with abolitionists in ascendance on one side and defenders of slavery and states rights on the other.

A decade earlier, a similar showdown had needed more ballots (63), but only a few weeks' time in 1849. Pro-slavery Democrats gained the upper hand and chose one of their own, Howell Cobb of Georgia, who would later be governor of that state as well as a founder of the Confederacy.

Cobb would be associated with the legislative landmarks of the 31st Congress: the Fugitive Slave Act (returning the captured to the slavers) and the Compromise of 1850, the last attempt of negotiators to settle the issue of slavery's expansion in the vast territories just acquired in the war with Mexico.

Three decades earlier, it had required 22 ballots in the 16th Congress to settle on John Taylor of New York as a successor to Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky, who resigned after negotiating the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Clay's deal admitted Missouri with enslaved people and Maine as a free state and drew a line across the country that was to determine which states were permitted slavery or were free.

An era of party-line speaker votes ends

Compared to the contentious and often violent history of the antebellum Congress, the Capitol in the 20th century witnessed generations of relative calm. After World War II, the contests for speaker were as predictable as clockwork. Every two years the members of both parties voted for their party nominee — without exception.

That pattern held for half a century. But it weakened late in the 1990s, giving way to a trend toward speakers holding on to just enough votes to squeak through, often by relying on some party members to vote "present" to decrease the number needed for a majority.

That trend has recently undermined the standing of speakers in both parties and foreshadowed the crisis that struck this past week.

For all her success as the first woman to be speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California was less dominant in her second tour in that role in 2019. That year she had 12 Democrats vote against her with three more voting "present." Two years later, Pelosi's Democrats barely hung on to the House majority even as Democrats were taking the Senate and the White House. Pelosi got another term as speaker by limiting her 2021 defections to five.

A less-than-solid vote for speaker has been a warning for three of the last four Republicans who held the job.

John Boehner of Ohio cleared the bar to remain speaker in 2015 despite 25 Republicans voting for someone else. But in October of that year, in mid-session, Boehner resigned the job in frustration.

His rather reluctant successor was Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who had nine GOP colleagues vote against him. He cut that number to just one in winning a full term in the job in 2017, but found the battle with hardliners too exhausting and retired voluntarily the next year.

Even the legendary Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, who ended 40 years of Democrats holding the big gavel, found it hard to hold onto it himself. His first re-election as speaker in 1997 occasioned a mini-rebellion of 10 GOP members voting for other people, voting present or not voting.

Having survived that, Gingrich would face down an uprising within his own leadership team that same year but then resign as speaker before the end of the next (prompted by a revolt in the full GOP caucus).

Consequences beyond the individuals involved

McCarthy spent the first week of 2023 at the bottom of the proverbial rain barrel, derided and mocked and questioned on all sides. One can say he had the last word at week's end when he could finally take the big gavel from the Democrats and swear in the members of the 118th Congress.

But the truth is, the last word has yet to be heard.

McCarthy has been negotiating with several recalcitrant conservatives for weeks, offering concessions regarding House rules and the role of the leadership. In general, the dissenters have argued for larger roles in the legislative process — more amendments, more floor debates, more seats on certain powerful committees — for themselves and for the rank and file.

There have also been more personal recriminations about McCarthy, suggesting he could not be trusted to deliver on his concessions.

On the other hand, and very much by way of contrast, several congressional observers have suggested the greater peril from McCarthy's weakened condition is that he will stand by his concessions and that will make the House ungovernable.

Brendan Buck, a former staffer and strategist for both Ryan and Boehner, published an editorial in The New York Times this week with a blunt message. "If Republicans are unable to muster the votes for a speaker," Buck warned, "it will make it very clear from the outset that they cannot be counted on to fulfill the body's basic responsibilities ..."

Even if McCarthy was able to hang on through repeated ballots to win, Buck wrote: "The prolonged spectacle would leave the Republican majority hopelessly damaged from the start, along with the institution of the House itself."

Beyond that, the deep sense of division on display in the House for many hours, day after day, has reinforced the popular image of the institution as unserious and consumed with its own conflicts of ego and ideology.

The memory of speakership fights leading up to the Civil War reminds us that the consequences of such dysfunction in the national government are not limited to the individuals involved or institutions themselves. They affect us all.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.

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