How long could Speaker battle drag on? 1856 offers a stark example
For the first time in 100 years, the contest for Speaker was not decided on the first ballot.
Now, the chamber faces an uncertain path forward, and a congressional battle from years ago — all the way back in 1856 — lends insight into how long the tug-of-war over the Speaker’s gavel may last.
Just as Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was unable to secure the 218 votes needed to become Speaker, former Rep. Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts was unable to round up enough support in the 1856 contest to lead the chamber. It ended up taking two months and 133 rounds of voting to determine that contest.
McCarthy faced 19 Republican detractors in the first round of voting on Tuesday, with GOP lawmakers casting votes for Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), among others.
Just as in 1856, when Banks ultimately prevailed, the House is now slated to hold votes continually until a Speaker is elected.
But that doesn’t mean the House will continue late into the night on Tuesday. It is possible the chamber will adjourn, giving lawmakers time to negotiate.
Until a Speaker is picked, business in the House cannot continue. It must first choose a Speaker before voting on a House rules package.
The fight in 1856 raged on because Banks, an anti-slavery Congressman, was opposed by a number of lawmakers who wanted to expand slavery.
Banks eventually won by a vote of 103 to 100 over former South Carolina Rep. William Aiken.
This time, the schism in the Republican Party is due in part to a group of hard-line conservatives who have sought key concessions from McCarthy and other Republican leaders. Those concessions include a lower threshold for a “motion to vacate,” an action that allows lawmakers to remove a Speaker.
But there was a prevailing question for those opposing McCarthy in the contest: Who is the alternative to McCarthy? One lawmaker teased this week that the group had a candidate waiting in the wings, but that claim was met with skepticism by other Republicans.
A Speaker’s contest has gone to a second ballot only 14 times. It last happened in December 1923, when former Rep. Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts reached an agreement with opposing lawmakers after nine ballots.
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