FILE PHOTO: Pelosi receives the gavel during the start of the 116th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington

How the speaker of the House gets picked

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of a 2015 article explaining the nomination process for House speaker.

With Republicans taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the party has begun the process of choosing who will wield the speaker’s gavel.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Tuesday won the party’s nomination to become the next House speaker, but the real test will be in January when the new members take office and hold the deciding vote.

WATCH: Pelosi won’t seek leadership role after Republicans take House, plans to stay in Congress

Here’s what you need to know about the selection process.

You need to 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 details.) While the magic number is 218 votes out of the 435-member House, a person could become speaker with fewer votes if several members do not attend the vote. That happened in 2021 when Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., won with just 216 votes after three members voted “present.”

In this week’s leadership vote, McCarthy received 188 votes from 219 returning Republican representatives, newly-elected members and candidates in uncalled races, overcoming a symbolic challenge from Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz. The deciding vote in January is typically a party-line vote, so no Democrats are expected to back McCarthy. That means with Republicans winning a narrow majority in the House, McCarthy can only afford to lose a small handful of Republican votes.

But you don’t need to be a House member to become speaker.

All candidates for speaker must be nominated by members of the House, but they don’t need to be elected lawmakers of the chamber. Article I, Section II of the Constitution says only that the House “shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other officers.” So far, the chamber has only chosen its own members as speaker.

In recent months, some Republican lawmakers have discussed nominating former President Donald Trump to the post. Non-House members who have received votes to become speaker in past years include then-former Vice President Joe Biden, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The speakership 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, is the frontrunner to replace House Speaker Pelosi.

Pelosi rose through the ranks from minority whip to minority leader in 2002 before becoming the first woman speaker of the House in 2007. She held the position until Republicans took control of the House in 2011, then regained the role in 2019 when Democrats again took over the chamber.

McCarthy previously made a run for speaker in 2015 when then House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, resigned after an internal party battle with the more right-wing members of the chamber, including the Freedom Caucus. Despite being the favorite as majority leader, McCarthy was forced to drop out of the running when it became clear he did not have the backing of the Freedom Caucus. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, later won the post.

Matt Loffman and Kyle Midura contributed to this report.