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How do you become Speaker of the House?

Rep. Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the race today for Speaker of the House. Here’s an overview on how that position is selected.

You just have to be nominated, no House seat required.
All candidates for speaker must be nominated by members of the House, but they don’t need to be elected lawmakers of the House. Article I, section II of the Constitution says only that the House “shall chose their Speaker and other officers.” So far, the chamber has only chosen its own members as speaker, but a non-lawmaker is possible. Earlier this year, former Secretary of State Colin Powell received a vote for speaker, as did Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Win a majority vote.
To be the next speaker, a person needs a majority of the votes from House members who are present and voting. (See this useful Congressional Research Service (CRS) report for more detail.) That means that while a majority is 218 votes in the House, a person could become speaker with fewer votes if several members do not attend the vote. That was the case earlier this year when Boehner won the gavel for the current session of Congress with 216 votes. It’s a party line vote. Typically, each party votes for one nominee, and the party with the most seats gets to choose the speaker. In a foretelling of things to come, 25 Republicans voted for someone other than Boehner earlier this year. Nearly all the Democrats voted for Nancy Pelosi of California, who was speaker before Boehner.

The speaker’s gavel is usually a promotion.
In modern speaker elections, the person who wins the gavel is usually already in their party’s leadership ranks. This is one reason California Republican Kevin McCarthy, the current GOP majority leader, was the clear favorite to replace Boehner.

The coming speaker election will be just the fifth time since 1913 (the earliest year in the Congressional Research Service report) that a new speaker has been elected mid-term. And it is only the second time in those 102 years that the speaker resigned before their term is finished. Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat, resigned in June 1989.

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