All eyes are on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as he negotiates a fragile path to the Speakership next year in the face of opposition from a handful of conservatives within his own conference.
The Republicans flipped control of the House in last month’s midterms, but their razor-thin majority has empowered the far-right firebrands who are vowing to block McCarthy’s Speakership bid — and are resisting all entreaties to alter course for the sake of party unity.
The entrenched opposition has raised the specter that McCarthy simply won’t have the support he needs to win the gavel when the House gathers on Jan. 3 to choose the next Speaker.
And it’s sparked a number of predictions — some of them more far-fetched than others — about how the day might evolve and who might emerge as the next Speaker if McCarthy falls short.
Here are seven scenarios being floated heading into the vote, ranked from least to most likely:
A Democrat squeaks in
It’s theoretically possible that discord within the GOP could lead to a Democratic Speaker.
Such a result is very, very unlikely because Republicans will have the majority in the vote and do not want this to happen.
But it is possible — if chaos on the floor prompted frustrated GOP moderates to back a centrist Democrat — that a member of the minority could be elected Speaker.
In fact, it’s one of the warnings that McCarthy and his allies have sounded in recent weeks as they seek to break the logjam of opposition and win him the gavel.
“If we don’t do this right, the Democrats can take the majority. If we play games on the floor, the Democrats can end up picking who the Speaker is,” McCarthy said in a November Newsmax interview after he won the House GOP nomination for Speaker 188 to 31 over Rep. Andy Biggs (Ariz.).
The warning, however, is more threat than prospect, as Republicans would never back a Democrat for Speaker after four years in the minority wilderness under Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). And even McCarthy has seemed to acknowledge that implausibility, by shifting his argument elsewhere in the weeks since.
House elects a Speaker who is not a member of Congress
House rules do not technically require that the Speaker is a sitting, elected member of House — though every Speaker in U.S. history has been. That leaves open the possibility of members looking for a McCarthy alternative elsewhere.
When conservative House Republicans aimed to mount a challenge to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2014, they tried to recruit Ben Carson, who later went on to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a Pelosi detractor, made a habit of voting for former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a supporter of McCarthy, told The Hill last week that there is no other member of the House Republican Conference who can get the support needed to be Speaker. And Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a liberal who’s been open to supporting a moderate “unity” candidate as a last resort, has said it does “not necessarily” have to be a sitting member.
A moderate Republican wins with backing of some Republicans and Democrats
That is a top worry of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has emerged as one of the most vocal supporters of McCarthy for Speaker.
Greene, who got a seat at the table from McCarthy rather than being made an outcast in the GOP conference, has repeatedly warned that moderate Republicans could flip to work with Democrats and support someone who is not as conservative as McCarthy — and less accommodating.
But Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who has said he’s talked to Democratic members about the possibility of backing an alternative candidate, has said he will only consider such a drastic measure if McCarthy drops out of the race for Speaker after repeated failed votes.
Still, at least one Democrat, Khanna, has expressed openness to backing a Republican Speaker candidate who will take certain measures to open up the House process to give Democrats more power in the minority, like equal subpoena power on committees. It is unlikely that Republicans would agree to such a concession.
Other lawmakers are skeptical of the chances for a bipartisan consensus candidate, saying it would be political suicide, particularly for Republicans.
“Let’s just say 20 of them joined with us to nominate somebody like Don Bacon, or bring Fred Upton back, or whatever,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). “Those 20 will be not quite as bad as if they voted for [former President Trump’s] impeachment, but moving in that direction. I just think that they’ll get beat to death."
McCarthy drops out of Speakership race to make way for consensus pick
The first time McCarthy sought the Speaker’s gavel was in 2015, to replace the retiring Boehner. That effort ended before the process ever reached the floor.
Faced with conservative opposition, McCarthy stunned Washington by dropping out of the race at the last moment, leaving Republicans scrambling for a viable candidate, who ultimately emerged in the form of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.).
The difference this year is that there is no obvious figure who can easily win the support of both far-right conservatives who want to alter fundamentally how the House functions and the moderates ready to get on with the process of governing.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), McCarthy’s top deputy, has been floated as a possible alternative.
But there’s no indication the conservatives would support anyone who didn’t accept the same demands they’re making of McCarthy, including a controversial rule change making it easier to oust a sitting Speaker — a change that would empower the right wing even further.
While Biggs continues his protest challenge to McCarthy, he has teased that there are other Republicans who have privately expressed interest in being an alternative if it becomes clear McCarthy cannot win the gavel.
But Biggs and his allies won’t name names, fearing doing so would put a target on their back.
House agrees to make McCarthy Speaker with a plurality of votes
If the House Speakership election drags on for multiple votes with McCarthy in the lead but not securing enough votes for a majority, the House could agree to adopt a resolution to declare that a Speaker can be elected by a plurality rather than by a majority.
That would require cooperation from Democrats, and it is not clear whether they would support such a resolution.
But there is precedent for the House agreeing to elect a Speaker by plurality, as it has happened twice before in House history.
The first time was in 1849, after the House had been in session for 19 days and held 59 ballots for Speaker. It happened again in 1856, when the House had taken 129 Speaker votes without any candidate winning a majority.
With so much uncertainty, some lawmakers are already bracing for a long day on Jan. 3.
“I’m obviously observing it from the other side, but all the intel I get from my Republican friends is that: expect it to go late,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.). “And I plan to wear my comfortable suit.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), a top “Never Kevin” Republican, floated that the Speaker election could take months — rivaling the longest-ever Speaker election in 1855, which took two months and 133 ballots.
“We may see the cherry blossoms before we have a Speaker,” Gaetz said, referring to the blooms that emerge in March or April in Washington, D.C.
McCarthy elected Speaker because of Democratic absences
A Speaker is elected by a majority of all of those present and voting, meaning that McCarthy does not necessarily need 218 votes to win the Speakership. If some members are absent or vote “present,” it lowers the threshold from 218.
Pelosi won the Speakership in 2021 with 216 votes due to vacancies and absences. And Boehner also won the Speakership with just 216 votes in 2015, when 25 members did not vote. Many Democrats were attending a funeral for the late New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) that day.
If the Speakership election drags on and Democrats tire of the repeated ballots, it is possible that Democratic members miss subsequent votes, which could lower the majority threshold just enough for McCarthy to squeak out a victory.
Illness, weather or other unforeseen circumstances could also affect member attendance on Jan. 3. And because Republicans are planning to eliminate the proxy voting installed by Democrats during the pandemic, lawmakers would not have the option of voting remotely for Speaker.
In the closely divided House, with 222 Republicans to 212 Democrats and one vacancy, McCarthy needs 218 votes if every member votes for a Speaker candidate.
McCarthy wins an outright majority of votes
Many Republicans supportive of McCarthy are optimistic that he will ultimately win a majority of votes without having to worry about Democrats.
Some members think that McCarthy may even be able to strike a deal with his detractors and win on the first ballot. Others think that once the McCarthy detractors make their point with at least one failed ballot, they might switch votes to allow him the gavel.
Rep. Blake Moore (R-Utah) compared McCarthy’s situation to that of Pelosi after the 2018 election, when she started off with enough opponents to deny her the Speakership but made enough agreements to earn majority support from Democrats.
“It is not any different. Like, they have a month the jockey and people vote against Pelosi, and ultimately they all get to the point they need to get to. I'm confident we'll do the same,” Moore said. “If I'm blindsided and we're doing 700 rounds and we're here till July, you can come back to me and say, ‘You were wrong.’”
McCarthy said on Fox News on Wednesday that he will have the votes to become Speaker either on Jan. 3 or before then.
“It could be somebody else, but whoever the somebody else is, everyone has a similar problem [with conservatives],” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “Which makes me believe that ultimately he’ll probably pull it together.”