What happens if Republicans fail to elect Kevin McCarthy as speaker? Here’s what the constitution says

The House of Representatives has failed to decide on a new speaker for the first time in more than a century, after Republican Kevin McCarthy was unable to secure a majority at the end of 11 votes this week.

Mr McCarthy must get a simple majority of votes from members to be elected speaker after Republicans took control of the lower chamber in the November midterms.

The House was adjourned at the end of a third failed day on Thursday evening amid din as his far-right Donald Trump-supporting GOP opponents showed no sign of relenting in their effort to block the former minority leader's election bid.

Despite the historic loss, Mr McCarthy remained defiant telling reporters that processes “take a little longer” and don’t “meet your deadline”.

“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” he insisted. “If we finish well, we’ll be very successful.”

The House will resume its efforts on Friday, and is expected to continue to hold votes for as many rounds as required until a candidate reaches the necessary majority.

So what does the US Constitution say if Mr McCarthy does not get to hold one of the important positions in US politics government after president Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris?

Unfortunately for those looking to the US’s founding document for a solution, the answer is very little.

The constitution says almost nothing about the selection process for the speaker of the House, according to Matthew Green, a professor of political science at the Catholic University of America.

“All it says in Article One … is ‘The House shall choose their speaker.’ That’s it," he told The Washington Post.

While the Constitution may not provide answers, there is historical precident for the current situation facing the House. In total there have been 14 instances of the House requiring multiple ballots to elect a speaker going as far back as the third Congress in 1793, according to the House of Representatives website.

Congress last failed to select a speaker at the first time of asking in 1923, when nine rounds were eventually needed to elect Frederick H Gillett of Massachusetts.

In 1855, it took the House a record 133 rounds of voting to elect a speaker.

Though there is precious little detail, the speaker's role is one of the few that does at least appear in the Constitution. The speaker is selected by a roll-call vote, and one involving the participation of the entire House.

As well as its practical importance to the functioning of American democracy, the role also has huge historical significance. “The earliest parties formed in part around electing the speaker,” said Eric Schickler, a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley.

“In the second and third Congresses, there were more Jeffersonians elected, but the Federalists were [more] organised” and succeeded in electing their choice of speaker, he told the Post.

“That started this practice of parties getting together and trying to settle on one candidate at the start.”

President Biden has decried House Republicans’ failure to elect a speaker and begin the assembly’s regular business, saying that the dysfunction reflects poorly on the country.

Speaking just outside the White House residence before he departed aboard Marine One for an event in Kentucky on Wednesday, Mr Biden said the spectacle in the lower chamber was “embarrassing”.

“It’s a little embarrassing it’s taking so long, and the way they are dealing with one another,” he said.

He said the House’s failure to choose a speaker on the first day of the 118th Congress was “not a good look” and “not a good thing” for the US.