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Republican Kevin McCarthy's future is in flux ahead of House speaker vote

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we begin this hour with the standoff unfolding on Capitol Hill. The new Congress is set to convene for the first time tomorrow. We know Republicans are taking over the majority in the House. What we do not know, not yet, is who they will elect to lead them as speaker. Kevin McCarthy of California has been trying and so far failing to lock down the votes he needs, which raises the specter of a, quote, "Republican majority hopelessly damaged from the start, along with the institution of the House itself." Well, that is the argument put forward by Brendan Buck in a new essay for The New York Times. Buck worked for the last two Republican speakers of the House. And he is with us now. Welcome.

BRENDAN BUCK: Thank you. It's great to be with you.

KELLY: To briefly lay out how this is supposed to work tomorrow, all 435 members are called. It's alphabetical. It's one by one. And they each shout the name of their choice for the speaker, which sounds a little chaotic, but the system has actually worked, with one exception, since the Civil War?

BUCK: Well, yeah, we usually know the outcome. It is typical that each party nominates one person, and just about everybody of that party votes for them. And there was actually a period for about 50 years in the mid-1900s were not a single member voted for anybody other than their party's nominee. But in recent years, you've actually started to see more and more members offer what I would consider protest votes. The outcome was never really in question, but a few people would vote for somebody other than their party's choice. But what we have here is a situation where enough members have said they're not going to vote for Kevin McCarthy, the Republican nominee, that he could potentially be blocked the speakership. And that's something we've only seen once since the Civil War.

KELLY: Yeah, once. And it was exactly a century ago, 1923. And I was reading up and learned it took nine ballots over three days that time to land on a speaker.

BUCK: And it's gone as many as 133 ballots, literally over months. But most of those precedents were, again, before the Civil War, before we had the two-party system really in place that we do now. So most of these members, if we end up going to multiple ballots, will be entering a process that none of them have seen in their lifetime. And I think it could be quite chaotic on the floor.

KELLY: From a practical point of view, nothing else gets done until a speaker gets elected. Is that right? No business gets conducted? New members can't even be sworn in?

BUCK: This has constitutional precedent over anything that happens in the House. No one can be sworn in. The rules of the House are not actually yet put in place. So if a vote fails, the next order of business is just to vote again. We keep voting until somebody gives in, and you elect a speaker with a majority of the House.

KELLY: So what would be the significance, the damage, as you see it, if it doesn't happen, if the House fails to elect a speaker on the first ballot?

BUCK: There are a lot of important things that you have to do. And the House is a majoritarian institution. And the speaker's power ultimately is derived from their ability to get 218 votes. That's a simple majority in the House, and that's how it works. And I just see that if you can't elect a speaker, if you can't put 218 votes up behind a person, I don't know how you can be expected to do some of the big things that you're going to have to do. Later this year, we're going to have to increase the debt limit to avoid a default. And it just sends the signal right from the very beginning that Republicans don't have their act together, that they can't be counted on producing 218 votes. That sends a worrying signal about, I think, the Congress. But it also really weakens the speaker because the other side knows...

KELLY: Like, whoever the speaker ends up being - it weakens them.

BUCK: Whoever the speaker is, they can't deliver on their votes. So instantly, the Democratic majority is much more empowered.

KELLY: And for context, this is a small number of members, a small handful of ultra-conservative Republicans who oppose Kevin McCarthy as speaker. But with the majority so thin in the House, you can't afford to lose even a small handful of votes.

BUCK: He can lose as many as four. And then five have already publicly said they're going to vote against him. And I think there's a lot of concern that that number is much higher than five, at least on the first ballot. So at that point, I think Kevin McCarthy believes the best thing he can do is keep voting and enter into a contest of wills with some of these people, who are vastly outnumbered by their Republican colleagues. But having multiple votes, multiple votes potentially fail is really risky territory. And it's really uncertain what would happen at that point and how long people would last and who they would lose patience with first - Kevin McCarthy or these people who are dissenting.

KELLY: Well, this sounds like an exhausting way to begin the next Congress (laughter). I don't mean to laugh. But I wonder - I understand you're not in the thick of it today, but what kind of wheeling and dealing is likely getting done right now in the back offices of GOP lawmakers who would like to see a speaker elected and be able to get on with things?

BUCK: There absolutely is going to be wheeling and dealing. These next 24 hours are going to be critical. A lot of the conversation is centering around the rules of the House, how it operates. But the big one comes down to something called the motion to vacate. And this is the mechanism by which you can recall the speaker, basically fire them at any time. And these members want to lower the threshold, whereas any single member at any point can make the House vote to kick the speaker out. It's a really tough way to operate within the speaker, and you've got that hanging over your head the entire time. John Boehner had it hanging over his head. Paul Ryan had it hanging over his head. Nancy Pelosi changed the rule so that it's harder to use. But that's what this is ultimately probably going to come down to. Is Kevin McCarthy willing to go back to those old ways where if just a single member doesn't like the way that they act, they can move to kick him out?

KELLY: Brendan Buck is a communications strategist who served the last two Republican speakers, Paul Ryan and John Boehner. Brendan Buck, thank you.

BUCK: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.