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As Kevin McCarthy is approaching his fifth defeat for a role as Speaker of the House of Representatives, I am interested to know whether there is a time limit (or special measures in place) until somebody must assume the role, in the event that the vote is unsuccessful each time.

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    Yeah, 2 years, then other people start trying again. But seriously, despite Einstein's characterization of doing the same thing 5 times and expecting a different result, there's no hard time limit for electing a speaker. Sometimes it's taken dozens of rounds, though the trend of the past century is 1 round...
    – dandavis
    Jan 4, 2023 at 19:27
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    Having Congress paralyzed by this issue for two years does not sound like a universally bad outcome.
    – Boba Fit
    Jan 4, 2023 at 19:32
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    I'm pretty sure it will go to penalty kicks soon.
    – dandavis
    Jan 4, 2023 at 19:44
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    The yardstick here is the 34th Congress, which took 2 months and 133 ballots to elect a speaker (Dec 1855 - Feb 1856) Jan 4, 2023 at 19:57
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    What I wonder is: If McCarthy does give up the fight, is there some other Republican who has enough support to win in his place? Or would we just get another impasse with different candidates?
    – Barmar
    Jan 5, 2023 at 15:58

2 Answers 2

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There is no official time limit, just a point where the question becomes irrelevant. It is theoretically possible for the entire two-year term of this Congress to pass without ever electing a Speaker, at which point the next set of Member-elects can vote on a Speaker for that new session of Congress. The problem with letting the entire term pass is that the House can't do anything else (even swear in the rest of its members) until the Speaker is elected, so going two years without one means two years of no legislation passing, even the uncontroversial things that pass by unanimous consent.

So the practical limit is the first "must-pass" bill's deadline - the first bill which will shut down the government or otherwise cause mass disruption if it hasn't passed. This page lists several upcoming fiscal bills - whether they're "must-pass" really depends on what Congress considers to be such. For example, bad things will likely happen if the debt ceiling isn't raised by the time the government hits the current one (probably this Summer) and the US defaults on its debt, but there's no requirement that it be passed.

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    I would say that two years is the official time limit as that is when the terms of the current members-elect (not members; they're not members until they select a Speaker) ends. Jan 5, 2023 at 8:16
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    That list is missing more mundane matters—like paying Congressional staff. My understanding is that won’t happen unless we have a Congress, and that won’t happen without a Speaker.
    – KRyan
    Jan 5, 2023 at 15:52
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    I don't quite think that must-pass can completely wedge. If the senate passes it first; there's a notice sent to the house that interrupts whatever is on the floor. They can take that opportunity to decide to vote on it, since there's no filibuster.
    – Joshua
    Jan 5, 2023 at 16:05
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    @Joshua That's an interesting question. If there's two "takes priority over other things" things pending, which wins?
    – Bobson
    Jan 5, 2023 at 17:16
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    @DavidHammen - But that's not a limit in the sense of "must be done by this point". It's more "must be done by this point if it's going to happen at all". I added a bit to reference that.
    – Bobson
    Jan 5, 2023 at 17:19
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There is no time limit and the votes will continue until a speaker is elected as nothing can happen in the house until that happens. It is possible that they can change the vote from a majority of all votes cast to a plurality and they have done that in the past.

Speaker elections with multiple ballots

This shows that there have been 14 speaker elections with multiple ballots one taking 133 votes.

Speaker of the 34th congress

The record for most rounds of votes, according to the Office of the Historian of the House, is the 34th Congress, when Rep. Nathaniel Prentice Banks of Massachusetts was only elected speaker after 133 rounds and some two months of voting.

In this case it took two months of voting to get it done.

Plurality Votes

Dire circumstances could lead to unusual procedures. Twice before, in 1849 and 1856, the House agreed to a resolution that allowed a Speaker to be elected by a plurality. That move was something of a last resort, though, and came after 59 and 129 failed ballots. A majority of the whole House would need to agree to that resolution.

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    Plurality voting will not happen, because the plurality winner is a Democrat. Jan 5, 2023 at 5:53
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    @SimonRichter I am not saying it will happen just that it is one option to end the deadlock.
    – Joe W
    Jan 5, 2023 at 13:18
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    @SimonRichter There does seem to be a road that leads there though. We ended up in the current situation in part because McCarthy played chicken with the freedom caucus assuming when ultimately the votes were cast they'd fall in line. There is a scenario where brinkmanship is played again and assume that if not voting for him would literally give control of the house to the Democrats, that would be too far for the holdouts.
    – Chuu
    Jan 5, 2023 at 14:59
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    @Chuu that is something I have heard talk about though it does come with the warning that some of the holdouts appear to prefer the democrat choice over McCarthy.
    – Joe W
    Jan 5, 2023 at 15:06
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    @JoeW In an interview yesterday, Jake Auchincloss seriously suggested that some of the never-Kevins should vote for Jeffries. It would only take 6 of them.
    – Barmar
    Jan 5, 2023 at 15:57

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