The multiple voting rounds for a new speaker in the House of Representatives brought back memories of the 1868 nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians.”
While the rhyme was written to teach children to count backwards starting from 10, in the House vote for a new speaker the starting number was 20 – the 20 Republican holdouts denying candidate Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., an early victory. The rhyme explains the reduction, one-by-one, of members of a group of 10 Indians – a similar fate that eventually befell the 20 holdouts as each round progressed.
It would take 15 rounds before McCarthy won on a vote that stretched into the early morning hours of Saturday, Jan 7. Just like law enforcement investigators conduct lengthy interrogations of criminal suspects using confinement and pressure to wear them down, the same combination worked with most of the 20 who, one-by-one, broke away to support McCarthy.
A brief explanation is in order for those somewhat befuddled by the 15 round voting marathon. After all, with a total of 435 seats in the House, McCarthy needed 218 votes – one vote more than half – to win but, in the end, achieved victory with 216 votes. How did that happen?
Republicans hold 222 seats to Democrats’ 212 in the 118th Congress. Democrats actually had 213 seats but Virginia Rep. Donald McEachin, who was reelected in November, died of cancer before the 118th Congress could convene, thus leaving his party one vote short during the speakership run. A special election will be held next month to fill that seat.
The problem with McCarthy reaching the 218 vote total arose as 20 Republicans refused to vote for him. Repeated votes were thus required, with each failure leaving McCarthy to negotiate further with the holdouts to swing them over. He was able to do so with 14, giving him a 216 total – obviously still two votes shy of the required 218. However, on the 15th vote, the six remaining Republican holdouts all voted “present,” allowing a new House rule to kick in. Under this rule, if “present” votes prevented the mandatory 218 votes from being obtained, only a majority of the yea or nay votes cast for a new speaker was necessary to win. Accordingly, McCarthy secured a 216 to 212 victory, becoming the 55th speaker of the House.
The House has elected a speaker 127 times since 1789 with every election since 1923 accomplished via a single vote. McCarthy’s 15-vote run was well short of the longest and most contentious speaker election in history, occurring in 1856 after two months and 133 rounds. The issue then was slavery expansion. The winning candidate, Rep. Nathaniel Banks, was anti-slavery. The political war to elect Banks was a prelude to the Civil War that followed.
McCarthy’s win, described as “one of the most dramatic, chaotic and ugly scenes in the history of the House of Representatives … (and) absolutely extraordinary,” was definitely a far cry from the single round, rubber-stamp approval for speaker given to McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., by a Democratic House majority. The day before Pelosi’s reelection as speaker on Jan. 3, 2019, her daughter, Alexandra Pelosi, (affectionately?) said of her mother, “She’ll cut your head off and you won’t even know you’re bleeding. That’s all you need to know about her. No one ever won betting against Nancy Pelosi. She’s preserved.” (One can only wonder what gift is given such a mother on Mothers’ Day.)
Sadly, Alexandra’s description of Nancy brings to mind a political Attila the Hun. Mother Pelosi was brutal during her reign of power – one with party members toeing the line or else. As Pelosi’s stature has now been reduced and she is no longer able to wield the political fear she could earlier, we will undoubtedly start hearing stories about her reign of terror and get to appreciate the disdain she so richly deserves.
But while Democrats took potshots at Republicans and their infighting before finally electing McCarthy, it should be clear Republicans exercised a level of independent thought of which House Democrats were incapable under Pelosi’s leadership. The movie “The Wizard of Oz” reveals what happens when an authoritarian is made “all powerful” – a role with which Democrats foolishly imbued Pelosi. Republicans sought to make the speaker more answerable to House members for overreaching actions. Pelosi was the gold standard for speaker abuse.
The Post Traumatic Political Stress Disorder inflicted by Pelosi’s tenure may be responsible for one concession McCarthy made to win votes from among the 20 holdouts – one most telling about her lust for power.
The concession involved the “motion to vacate” – a parliamentary procedure allowing members of the House to submit a request for the speaker to step down. Originally, any individual House member could make such a motion. However, this obviously concerned an authoritative Pelosi who watered down the potential for such a coup against her, mandating that only a party leader or majority vote by a party could force a vote of confidence. The concession McCarthy made returns to the original intent.
Meanwhile, Pelosi has the audacity to claim Republicans fail “to bring dignity to this body” with their “cavalier attitude in electing a speaker” which she describes as “frivolous, disrespectful and unworthy of this institution.” Unbelievably, this comment comes from a speaker who disrespected her office and the entire country in 2020 when she ripped up her copy of President Donald Turmp’s State of the Union speech on national television as he completed his address to Congress. Pelosi is a two-faced witch.
While President Joe Biden also relished in the chaotic GOP election for speaker, a danger to America does exist due to the 20 Republican holdouts having tasted blood waging their fight against McCarthy. Mostly ultraconservatives, they had seven major concessions met by him and, therefore, may utilize a similar tactic in future votes. Speaker McCarthy will definitely have his work cut out for him in taming this bloc as he pushes a softer, kinder, united Republican agenda forward. Democrats are banking on his failure to do so for the next two years.
Congressional political infighting, whether inter or intra party, takes the focus off “we the people” – a situation not helped by an incompetent president who, upon taking office, promised to be a unifier, only to act contrary ever since.
Two world wars of the 20th century caused our politicians to unite, doing what was needed to meet those challenges. One wishes the same sense of national unity would spring forward in Congress today as it faces issues such as a pandemic, inflation, supply-chain woes, international conflicts and increasing crime rates, just to name a few.
McCarthy needs to adopt a Winston Churchillian leadership role in Congress, getting so few to do so much for so many in a unified and productive effort to meet these challenges. How goes McCarthy, goes America’s future.
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