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How many votes does the House speaker need to win?

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) acknowledges applause on the floor of the House prior to another round of voting for a new House Speaker on the second day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 4, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

McCarthy has spent the past two months being asked about one number: 218.

That’s because 218 is the simple majority of the House when all 435 members are present. And a person needs a simple majority to get elected speaker.

But the math for McCarthy is actually more complicated.

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There are only 434 House members in Washington, that’s because one Democrat has died since Election Day, creating a vacancy. One vacancy still requires 218 votes for a simple majority.

But McCarthy and his allies say that should a member vote “present” that lowers the number of members considered “present and voting” and therefore shrinks the size of the simple majority.

On the fourth ballot, Rep. Spartz did just that. If she continues voting present, a speaker may only need 217 votes to win. McCarthy was still short and because Spartz had previously been voting for him, he actually lost a vote. But McCarthy and his allies believe that if they can get enough of his detractors to switch to “present” instead of voting for someone else, he will be able to win with a smaller simple majority.

One problem? So far, Democratic Leader Jeffries has more votes than McCarthy — so if the threshold kept falling, it could elect the Democrat speaker instead.

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