The reason this seemed impossible prior to last week is simple math, and the way Foley explained the process in the weeks leading up to it.
The speakership is decided by a simple majority and Republicans hold a majority in the new Congress. It’s a slim majority, but for 100 years, any majority was enough to do the trick when Congress convenes because by then the vote is a done deal.
The respective parties pick a leader before the vote starts and any challenges are ironed out then. In 1989, Foley was a shoo-in to be speaker after Jim Wright resigned under fire. He was the majority leader and no one else was begging for the job.
That’s not always the case, Foley said. In late 1968, Morris Udall had challenged longtime Speaker John McCormack for the job prior to the start of Congress the following year. Udall called all the Democratic members to ask for their support and thought he had about 85 votes — Foley was among them — but McCormack called all his members, too. When the voting happened Udall only got 57 because some people who had promised to support him defected. It prompted Udall, an Arizonan, to quip that the difference between a cactus and a caucus was that with the former, “the pricks are on the outside” and thus easier to recognize.
Udall’s challenge was mainly symbolic, a challenge of the old guard by a young reformer. If he had managed to get more votes in the caucus, McCormack would have stepped aside.
When the voting in the House happened a few days later at the start of the new Congress, McCormack got all 241 Democrats, and Gerald Ford, the minority leader, got all 187 Republican votes. That’s because every member knows that their first vote is for their party.
This was true in 1989, and it prompted Republican Rep. Sid Morrison, who represented Central Washington’s 4th District at the time, to do some ‘splaining to his constituents back home.
Despite being from different parties, Morrison and Foley were friends. Foley looked out for Morrison’s district on important projects, like when U.S. 395 needed money for more lanes between Interstate 90 and the Tri-Cities.
But when the time came to vote for speaker, even though having a friend as well as someone from his home state in the speaker’s chair would be a definite plus, Morrison voted for Rep. Bob Michel of Illinois, who was the Republican leader and was going to lose because there were 77 more Democrats than Republicans in the House at the time.
Morrison explained that in a statement to his constituents.
Most votes for speaker, which happen on the day the House convenes, are a pro-forma, first order of business that take only as long as the time to call the names of the 435 representatives and have them voice their choice.
There are occasional protest votes, but no successful speaker candidate in 100 years had gone to the House vote without the support needed to win that election on the first ballot.