What to know about the state of play for the House speaker's gavel

Kevin McCarthy walks forward with enthusiasm, flanked by a woman and a man, with a backdrop of U.S. flags.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., attends the House Republican candidates' forum at the Capitol on Monday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Republicans have won a narrow majority in the House of Representatives for the next congressional term, ending full Democratic control of Congress. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has led House Democrats for two decades and is the first woman to hold the speakership, announced Thursday that she would not pursue the role of minority leader.

So a final question looms as to who will be the next speaker of the House.

The powerful position is second in the presidential line after the vice president and can effectively control the levers of power in the lower chamber.

Like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, the current House minority leader, faces fierce opposition from his right flank.

McCarthy, of California, defeated his conservative challenger, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., in a secret ballot on Tuesday, by 188-31 votes, to become the GOP nominee for speaker. But that was only the first step, and McCarthy will need an outright majority in a full House vote in January.

If a handful of Republicans remain steadfast in their opposition to McCarthy, who may have a razor-thin majority in the chamber to work with, his path to the speaker’s gavel could be at risk.

To help explain how the process works and the state of play, Yahoo News spoke with Matt Green, professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, and with Republican strategist Scott Reed. Some responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Yahoo News: How is the next speaker of the House chosen?

Matt Green: It's a two-stage process for selecting a speaker of the House. The first stage is: Each party has a vote among its members to decide who should be nominated to be speakers. The Democrats will nominate someone, the Republicans will nominate someone, and that's a majority vote. [As in McCarthy’s nomination on Tuesday.]

Then the second, which happens when the new Congress meets and every member of the House casts a ballot for one of those two nominees, or for anyone else they choose, or they may vote "present" or they may not vote. Whoever has the majority of votes among all those who cast a ballot for a named person is elected speaker.

I have seen reports that have said McCarthy needs 218 votes to be elected speaker, and that's not quite correct. McCarthy needs a majority of the votes cast for a named candidate. So one of the things that has happened — in fact, every election on the floor for speaker since 2011 — you've seen some members defect, but they usually vote "present." So that's the equivalent of not voting at all. And that reduces the total number of ballots cast, which reduces the size of the majority that's needed to win.

It seems like a trivial point, but it can be really important in these close races, with a lot of defections. So I would not be surprised if in January we see a number of skeptics voting "present." It's like a protest vote. It doesn't really affect the outcome negatively for your party.

Who can be nominated for speaker of the House? Article 1, Section 2, of the Constitution says, “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”

Green: Some have argued that anyone could be speaker, because the Constitution does not prohibit a nonmember from being elected. It's unclear what would happen if that occurred. There are some legal scholars who say that in practice or fundamentally, the Constitution did not intend that, but it doesn't explicitly prohibit a nonmember from being chosen speaker.

Neither party has ever nominated a nonmember. However, there are members of Congress who have chosen to cast their ballots for nonmembers. For example, there was one election (in 2015) where Colin Powell got at least one vote from a member of the House of Representatives. And Colin Powell, of course, the former secretary of defense, had never served in Congress. [Sen. Rand Paul also received a vote to be speaker in 2015.]

What sort of challenges would McCarthy face within his own party to secure votes for speaker?

Green: The Freedom Caucus, which is considered far-right and Trump-aligned — their No. 1 bargaining chip right now is that there are roughly 40 members of the caucus. That's way more than the number of Republicans who could defect on a vote for speaker on the floor and deny McCarthy the speakership. So without their votes, McCarthy cannot get elected speaker. And as a result, we have Freedom Caucus members saying things like, "If you want my vote, you need to, for example, change the rules of the House to give the rank and file more power, or weaken the power of leaders, or make it easier to remove leaders." So there's a negotiation process that is happening right now, where McCarthy is talking to these members and seeing if you can make a deal with them to get them what they want, in exchange for their vote for speaker.

Will McCarthy secure the votes?

Scott Reed: Yes, I think McCarthy has proven to the Republicans and Congress that he was able to get them to the promised land through his leadership, through fundraising and through his strategic approach to the election. While expectations were wildly high and not met, he's still the right person to lead and be the speaker, and I think in the next five weeks he will go about the methodical process of what it takes to put that together and be victorious. This is not a job for the faint of heart, and McCarthy knows exactly what he needs to do, and he's in the process of doing it.

[McCarthy appears to have confidence that he will have the votes in January. Speaking to reporters after the nomination vote on Tuesday, he noted that the last two speakers also lacked the votes at this point in the process: in 2015, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., lost 43 votes, while Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., lost 32 votes in 2018. “We have our work cut out for us, we've got a small majority. We've got to listen to everybody in our conference,” McCarthy said. “We'll find a way to make it happen.”]

Does McCarthy need the help of House Democrats to secure votes?

Reed: No, I don't think it's necessary. At the end of the day, these folks can huff and puff and try to blow the house down, but McCarthy's gonna be the next speaker. Period.

[On Tuesday, McCarthy was asked by reporters whether he would reach out to House Democrats for their votes. He replied, “No. We’re the majority as Republicans, and we’ll get there as Republicans.”]

What’s your response to McCarthy’s critics, like Rep. Andy Biggs and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who say he doesn’t have the votes?

Reed: I think McCarthy needs to go out and work to get the votes. He's not taking it for granted. But if you're going to be attacked by members of Congress like Biggs and Gaetz, you're in a pretty good place.

What happens if there is a stalemate during the January House floor vote?

Green: In 1923, a group of progressive House Republicans refused to vote for their party's nominee for speaker — this guy named [Frederick] Gillette. As a result, there was no one elected speaker on the first round of balloting. And you had a series of negotiations and compromises until finally this group got some rules changes, and in exchange they did vote for Gillette. So it's a template that the Freedom Caucus could easily follow. They could do the exact same thing and create a stalemate on the House floor, with no person chosen as speaker until they get the rules changes that they would like.

If McCarthy is the next speaker, what is he planning to do in the House?

Reed: I don't know many of the specifics, but I do know he's planning on putting the House back into what's called regular order. He's going to get rid of the magnetometers [safety measures put in place after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot]. He's going to have members show up and vote — not to be able to be over in Paris or London and cast their vote because of the COVID epidemic — and he's going to bring a lot of commonsense issues back to the table that a lot of conservatives and Freedom Caucus members like.

I think he's going to be in a really strong position to be able to lead the party and change the direction of the Biden presidency.