OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author’s opinion.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan has lost two votes for Speaker this week by failing to garner the requisite 217 votes, but that doesn’t mean his campaign for the gavel is dead in the water.
There is another way to the Speakership that doesn’t require the support of a majority of House members, but it hasn’t been used since before the Civil War, and observers say it’s risky, Fox News reported on Wednesday.
“The House has elected a speaker a few times in history on a plurality rather than an outright majority,” the outlet noted. “The House is allowed to decide how the speaker election is held, according to House Practice, so changing the threshold is an option on the table.”
Fox added that there have been two plurality elections to decide the Speaker in U.S. history. In 1856 during the 34th Congress and just four years before southern states seceded following the election of Abraham Lincoln, the House was bitterly divided after concessions and conditions regarding slavery had been hammered out.
“A fledgling Republican Party, a decimated Democratic Party, the nativist American (Know-Nothing) Party and a declining Whig Party could not decide on a top House lawmaker,” Fox News noted.
Voting began and 21 members received votes for Speaker on the first ballot. The deadlock lasted two months.
Amid the votes, American Party Rep. Felix Zollicoffer of Tennessee introduced and passed a House resolution having the three top candidates for speaker to “publicly state their opinions of Congress’ recent actions on the spread of slavery to the western territories.”
Even after the questioning session the House could not decide on a speaker.
That deadlock was broken when the House voted to reduce the threshold to elect the speaker from the traditional simple majority to a plurality election.
Following 133 ballots, Know-Nothing Rep. Nathanial Banks was finally elected Speaker with 103 votes.
In 1849, during the 31st Congress, the House went without a Speaker for 19 days because neither the Whigs nor the Democrats held a majority, while the Free Soil Party split votes even more. It would take nearly three weeks before a Speaker was finally chosen; then-Rep. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee put forth a resolution to lower the threshold to a plurality, as well as an amendment to ballot the election, Fox News noted.
“The resolution and amendment passed, and Georgia Democrat Rep. Howell Cobb was elected speaker via plurality after 63 votes, three votes after the rules had been changed,” Fox noted.
On Tuesday, Jordan lost his bid by 17 votes, drawing only 200 of the 217 needed, with Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries garnering 212. But on Wednesday, Jordan lost ground and got even fewer votes.
“Historically, there is precedent for a plurality speaker election, but the move is risky if the math does not add up,” Fox reported. “Any miscalculation on votes in a plurality election would run the risk of the GOP inadvertently handing the speakership to the Democrats, should GOP members break from the party.”
All said, however, the House will probably turn to a different “plan B.”
According to reports, it seems increasingly likely that the GOP Caucus will formally elect Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina speaker pro tempore. Right now, as acting Speaker, he lacks the authority to move legislation through the chamber, Politico noted.
“Centrist Republicans and Democrats are once again backchanneling about a possible vote to strengthen McHenry’s abilities to bring legislation to the floor — particularly spending bills, given a Nov. 17 funding deadline — amid the weeks-long impasse in selecting a speaker,” Politico reported.
“They’re pushing a short-term measure that would grant McHenry added powers and could pass the House by majority vote, though they have not coalesced around specific language,” the news outlet added.