Americans and people worldwide are watching democracy in action in the race for Speaker of the House of Representatives. It is a strange phenomenon that has not been seen since 1923, the last time that members of the House took more than one vote to decide who the Speaker would be. Representative Kevin McCarthy has failed to earn the necessary 218 votes nine different ballots but is still in contention.
Fred Lucas said that there have been fourteen elections for a speaker that took multiple ballots. He shared the following “most dramatic and contentious races for House speaker.”
1. ‘Never Nancy’ Democrats
Democrats won control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections, but 21 of the newly elected and returning Democrats vowed during the campaign that they would not vote for House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to reclaim the speakership….
Another 19 successful Democrat candidates in the 2018 midterm elections were noncommittal during their campaigns about whether they would vote for Pelosi to return as House speaker in January 2019 after her stint in the job from 2007 to 2011….
Eventually, Pelosi was forced to negotiate a deal with these Democrats, agreeing that she and her leadership team of Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and James Clyburn, D-S.C., would term-limit themselves to four years.
This convinced most of the rebellious Democrats to return to the fold. On Jan. 3, 2019, the opening day of the session, just 12 Democrats voted for someone other than Pelosi for speaker while three abstained. Pelosi still had enough support, 220 votes, to become speaker again.
2. Reelecting Gingrich
After the 1994 election, new House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia became a historic figure as the first Republican speaker in four decades….
After the 1996 elections, the GOP again held the majority in the House. The leadership election was scheduled for Jan. 8, 1997. After significant media buildup, Gingrich lost only nine Republicans.
Four House Republicans voted against Gingrich….
Meanwhile, five other Republicans abstained….
3. A Record 133 Ballots
It’s perhaps not unusual that the most contentious House speaker’s race in history happened just five years before the nation was ripped apart by a bloody Civil War.
Factionalism was a major problem in December 1855, when 21 House members initially ran for speaker. Issues dividing the country were both slavery and immigration; the American Party, also known as the Anti-Mason or “Know Nothing” party, had elected members to the House, as had the antislavery Free-Soil Party.
The Republican Party, founded the year before, was still in its infancy.
The House continued voting for about two months and cast 133 ballots before [electing a Speaker].
4. Replacing Henry Clay
… In October 1820, the iconic [Henry] Clay, of Kentucky, resigned as House speaker in the middle of the 16th Congress to return to private law practice. Clay had brokered the so-called Missouri Compromise to curb the expansion of slavery into new territories, while leaving slavery alone in states where it already existed.
From Nov. 13 to 15, the House sorted through 22 ballots to find a replacement for Clay as speaker. The debate focused on future states and the expansion of slavery.
[Rep. John W.] Taylor secured a majority to win the speakership.
5. Slavery and 63 Ballots
Slavery would continue to be a major issue in showdowns over the House speakership three decades later.
In 1843, Rep. Howell Cobb, D-Ga., first broke with other southern House members who had formed a pro-slavery voting bloc. By 1849, the House was battling over the speakership. Cobb became a popular cross-partisan figure for his strong stance against talk of succession. After 63 ballots, he emerged as a compromise candidate.
Cobb presided over the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state, allowed the new states of Utah and New Mexico to decide on slavery for themselves, and made it easier for slave owners to recover runaway slaves.
6. Republicans Rising
The Republican Party, established in 1854, won a majority in Congress in 1858 while opposing unpopular President James Buchanan, a Democrat.
However, after winning the majority, the new party lacked the votes to elect its top candidate, Rep. John Sherman of Ohio.
The House went through 44 ballots before settling on a Republican freshman…. [who was voted out of office during the 1860 election].
7. A Century Earlier
It was almost a century ago, in December 1923, when the last standoff over a speaker went to multiple ballots. A Republican-controlled House with a fairly thin majority had to go through nine ballots before picking a leader.
As it turned out, Republicans picked the existing leader…. [after three days and nine ballots].
In 2023, the House has already held eleven ballots, but they are not yet close to 22, 44, 63, or 133. Democracy is interesting to watch in action.