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Why 218 may not be the magic number for Kevin McCarthy to become speaker

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of Calif., waves as he walks on stage before speaking at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) John Locher/AP

Why 218 may not be the magic number for Kevin McCarthy to become speaker

Cami Mondeaux

November 21, 01:15 PM November 21, 01:15 PM

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Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has already positioned himself as the next House speaker for when Republicans take control of the lower chamber next year, unveiling his party’s agenda and announcing plans to remove high-profile Democrats from their committee assignments.

McCarthy has won a conference vote to remain party leader, but he must also win a majority vote on the House floor in January before taking on the mantle as speaker. But the House minority leader faces a problem: Does he have enough votes to clinch the speaker position?

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There are 435 House seats in the 118th Congress, meaning McCarthy must capture 218 votes to secure the majority and be elected speaker. Republicans won a narrow majority in the lower chamber last week, with the most recent projections predicting the GOP will hold a 222-213 advantage in the House for the next two years — giving McCarthy little room for error.

McCarthy won the GOP nomination by a 188-31 vote, putting more Republicans against the party leader than he could afford to lose during a full House vote.

This could prove disastrous for the House minority leader while he courts GOP lawmakers for their support, as some Republicans have been outspoken that they won’t support his speaker bid. That list includes Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Andy Biggs (R-AZ), who challenged McCarthy for the speaker nomination last week.

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“I’m not voting for Kevin McCarthy,” Gaetz said on the Charlie Kirk Show last week. “And I am certain that there is a critical mass of people who hold my precise view. And so the sooner we can sort of dispense with the notion that Kevin is going to be speaker, then we can get to the important work.”

However, McCarthy could skirt by without garnering the lucky number of 218.

To win the speakership, McCarthy only needs to win a majority of the votes from lawmakers on the floor. However, House rules show that if GOP lawmakers who do not support McCarthy’s bid simply vote “present,” the final number needed to win the majority is lowered — giving him a better chance to win.

That way, House Republicans can choose not to support McCarthy while not jeopardizing his chance at becoming speaker.

But not all lawmakers will make it easy for him, with some Republicans vowing to vote for another candidate in an effort to sink McCarthy’s chances. Gaetz, for example, has said he will vote for another candidate, although it’s not clear who might mount a bid against McCarthy.

McCarthy has maintained confidence he’ll be elected as speaker, pointing to previous election cycles in which the nominee had similar margins in conference votes before clinching the speakership. For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was nominated by Democrats with a 203-32 vote in 2019 before winning 216 votes on the House floor. Similarly, John Boehner (R-OH) was elected speaker with just 216 votes in 2015 when 25 members were not present to vote.

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“Look, we have our work cut out for us. We’ve got to have a small majority,” McCarthy told reporters after winning the nomination last week. “We’ve got to listen to everybody in our conference.”

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