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Longest-ever Speaker fight was 133 rounds – here’s what happened

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. (Dreamstime/TNS)
January 06, 2023

History was made in the House of Representatives this week as Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) suffered defeat after defeat in his bid to be elected House Speaker. 

It was the first time in a century it took multiple rounds of voting to elect a Speaker, which is required before the elected representatives can get any business done. By Friday afternoon, McCarthy had lost in thirteen rounds of voting — and counting — across four days.

But it’ll take over 100 more rounds of voting for the situation now paralyzing the House to become the longest-ever Speaker election.

That record was set in 1855, when it took two months and 133 ballots to elect Massachusetts Rep. Nathaniel Banks, according to historical information on the House website. More than 21 representatives initially put their hats in the ring, and it was a narrow vote of 103-100 that clinched the spot for Banks over South Carolina Rep. William Aiken.

After Banks was elected on Feb. 2, the New-York Tribune’s headline heralded the “END OF THE GREAT STRUGGLE,” according to ABC News.

The drawn-out fight for the speakership emerged from “a poisoned and deteriorating political climate” polarized over slavery and immigration, the page notes, adding that the high number of candidates was a sign of the era’s “factionalism.”

That 1855 election is the only time it’s taken more than 100 ballots to elect a Speaker, according to another House history page. The next-longest election came earlier in 1849, when Georgia Rep. Howell Cobb was named Speaker after 63 rounds of voting.

The third-longest was even earlier but significantly shorter, when it took 22 rounds to elect New York Rep. John Taylor in 1819. 

In all, it has now taken multiple votes to elect a House Speaker 15 times in American history. Thirteen of these instances occurred before the Civil War.