Gaming Out the Numbers in the Kevin McCarthy Tunnel of Doom

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Let me game out a few possibilities on the speakership vote. And let me say first, these remain quite hypothetical. I think Kevin McCarthy will become Speaker. But it’s worth walking through how different scenarios could play out.

First, as we know, to be elected Speaker you have to win a majority of the chamber. In other words, 218 out of 435 votes. A majority of your own party doesn’t cut it. That’s why having such a narrow majority makes everything so difficult. Other unexpected events can become very important. The passing of Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA), who died on Monday, could turn out to be significant in how this plays out, a point we’ll get to in a moment.

Second, there are some ways to fiddle with the numbers. It’s a majority of who is there or more specifically a majority of those who vote for a specific person by name. So if those dead enders who say they absolutely won’t vote for Kevin McCarthy simply agree to abstain or vote present or not even show up then the number goes down. But if Matt Gaetz votes for Donald Trump or Jim Jordan or himself that doesn’t reduce the number. House rules say it’s the majority of members voting for someone “by name.” That aspect of the rules becomes very significant.

Third, here’s where it gets interesting. As we see, abstaining or not showing up gives McCarthy some wiggle room to thread the speakership needle. But there’s a big constraint on that. Remember that this is a contest between Kevin McCarthy and Hakeem Jeffries, who yesterday was formally chosen as House Minority Leader, head of the Democratic caucus. Jeffries is the Democrats’ candidate for Speaker. This gets lost a bit since the majority’s candidate always wins. But it becomes relevant here. It now appears that the final results of the House midterm will be 222 Republicans and 213 Democrats. The passing of Rep. McEachin (D-VA) means that number will temporarily fall to 212. (Gov. Youngkin has a little leeway in deciding just when a special election gets called. But there’s no way to schedule it before January 3rd in any case. So that’s moot.) Whatever voting present they do, McCarthy still has to get at least 213 votes because otherwise he will tie or lose to Hakeem Jeffries. That’s the lower bound. Whatever they do, McCarthy can’t get less than 213.

Fourth, there’s another escape hatch. But as I’ll explain it doesn’t provide much of an escape. If no candidate can get to a majority, the House can vote to change the rules and allow a Speaker to win with a plurality. That’s happened in the distant past when there was some third party representation. But that doesn’t really change much here. Majority or plurality, McCarthy still needs at least 213 votes, assuming all the Democrats show up and they all vote for Hakeem Jeffries, which is a very safe assumption. That potential rule change only really matters in a case where there’s some third party faction complicating the path to a majority. That’s not the case here.

Fundamentally this isn’t about numbers. It’s about what the House Freedom Caucus, or the kind of people that group has historically represented, really wants. We’re in the midst of that dramatic plot twist one occasionally sees in movies in which the hostage takers take the hostage (in this case, Kevin McCarthy) and they’re not quite sure what to do with him. Kill the hostage and run for it? Ask for something in return? But what? They don’t have an alternative candidate.

In response to yesterday’s post TPM Reader SS tried to summarize or capture what I was saying and managed to capture it in a way I hadn’t quite been able to. “The biggest challenge McCarthy faces is that by accommodating every fringe MAGA ask with so little pushback, he hasn’t given them a way to ‘win’ short of denying him the speakership. They need to bring him to heel so they know they don’t have another Boehner situation. But he has caved so fast on everything no can really see them beating him. The only ‘discipline’ they may be left with is to vote him down.”

That captures a big part of it.

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