How the U.S. House Will Elect the Speaker: A Viewer’s Guide

(Bloomberg) -- Nancy Pelosi will make her bid Thursday to become speaker of the House, after she lost the title in 2011 when Republicans won control of the chamber. Choosing a speaker will be a first order of business Thursday as Democrats take control of the House.

A faction of Democrats had sought to derail Pelosi’s bid, but many of them have been lining up behind her in recent weeks. The majority party’s candidate is usually a shoo-in and Democrats have a solid hold on the chamber.

There still could be some drama and surprises on the House floor throughout the slow roll call vote of all 435 members. Republicans will counter by nominating Representative Kevin McCarthy of California. Here’s what to watch:

The Speaker Election Process

  • Because the House dissolves at the end of each two-year congressional session and then re-forms at the beginning of each new one, the Clerk of the House presides until a speaker is elected or re-elected and will call the chamber to order at noon.
  • The process commences with a Democrat and Republican representative nominating a speaker, representing their party’s picks for the job.
  • Other names can then also be placed in nomination from the floor and are not limited to sitting lawmakers. The more names thrown out by dissidents can threaten to dilute the strength of the party’s formal nominees.
  • One by one, in alphabetical order, lawmakers’s names are called out starting at about 12:50 p.m. Each voting member will then state aloud the surname of the candidate he or she favors, a process that will take about an hour.
  • A tally of the votes will be kept by four members appointed by the presiding officer, two from each party.
  • To become speaker, a candidate must receive a majority of the total number of votes cast for a person by name. That means at least 218 votes in the 435-seat House are needed to win, unless that number is lowered due to vacancies, absentees, or members answering only “present" during the roll call.
  • If no candidate obtains a majority of all the votes for a named individual, the process goes to another ballot. The roll call is repeated until someone wins a majority. On each successive ballot, members can vote for anyone, including candidates who failed on earlier ballots or who weren’t previously nominated.

After Speaker Picked

  • The presiding officer announces the name of the newly elected speaker and then appoints a committee of members to escort the speaker-elect to the chair atop the chamber’s rostrum.
  • Traditionally, the minority floor leader makes remarks and presents the speaker-elect to the House
  • The speaker-elect addresses the chamber before being sworn in at about 2:30 p.m., typically by the longest continuously serving member. In this case it would be Representative Don Young, a Republican from Alaska who is starting his 24th term.
  • The House then adopts two resolutions: one that informs the Senate of the speaker’s election and one that directs the clerk to inform the president.

The History

  • Since 1913, when the House first reached its current size of 435 seats, only five speakers have been elected with fewer than 218 votes.
  • At the beginning of the 34th Congress in 1855, 133 ballots over a period of two months were necessary to elect Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts as speaker.
  • The last multiple-ballot speaker election was in 1923. Both major party nominees initially failed to gain a majority because of votes cast for other candidates from the Progressive Party or from the “progressive” wing of the Republican Party. Many of these members agreed to vote for the Republican candidate only on the ninth ballot, after the GOP leadership agreed to accept a number of procedural reforms these.

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