Across 11 rounds of voting for House speaker, a distinct pattern has emerged.
Someone nominates Kevin McCarthy, and someone nominates Hakeem Jeffries, and someone nominates someone else. Then the clerk reads the names and records the votes of 434 members (the 435-seat House has one vacancy), even though everyone knows that no candidate can reach the necessary majority, and even though everyone knows how everyone else will vote because we’ve done this — wait, how many times have we done this? — 11 times already, and the only thing that changes is which Someone Else the Someone Else voters are voting for.
So it’s reasonable to ask why they’re all still there, still voting.
The answer is that they have no choice.
Under federal law, a newly elected House must swear in a speaker, and the speaker must swear in the members “previous to entering on any other business.” In other words, until the House chooses a speaker, it cannot legally do anything else. As long as it is in session, it has to vote for a speaker (a tedious, time-consuming affair because House precedent says the speaker is elected by a “viva voce” vote, a live voice vote in which each individual member-elect says a name out loud). If the vote fails, it has to vote again. And again.
The only other option is for it to not be in session. But to adjourn, somebody must make a motion to do so, and the House must agree.
Democrats won’t vote to adjourn; they say Republicans must get their act together and choose a speaker. And Mr. McCarthy’s critics have been reluctant to do so because it is in their interest to highlight time and again that the Republican leader lacks the votes to win the speakership.
The House did manage on Thursday night to adjourn until noon on Friday. But at other points in the day, Republicans didn’t think they had the votes to do that. If they couldn’t muster enough votes to adjourn, the House had to stay in session. So they had to keep voting on a speaker. The same will be true if they can’t muster the votes to adjourn on Friday.
During times of crisis and uncertainty, House leaders often call for a recess, a congressional time out that allows them to pause and regroup without losing control of the floor. But that’s not possible in this procedural limbo either.
“Recess is a process covered by the rules,” said Matthew Bonaccorsi, the communications director for the House Rules Committee. “Recessing isn’t an option because the authority to do that is contained in the rules package for each Congress, and the House can’t pass a rules package until it has chosen a speaker.”