When Republicans assumed control of the House early last year after winning a narrow majority in the 2022 midterms, Representative Earl Blumenauer, a veteran Democrat from Oregon, made a bold prediction: His party had a slight chance of reclaiming power before the next election — through sheer attrition.
Republicans commanded just a thin edge over Democrats, 222-213, Mr. Blumenauer reasoned, and typical turnover in recent years suggested that could shrink further. Plus, a certain new Republican representative from New York by the name of George Santos did not seem likely to survive a cascade of ethics issues and criminal charges.
Still, Mr. Blumenauer’s prognosticating seemed more like liberal wish-casting given the dominoes that needed to fall to fulfill it. A year later, though still highly unlikely, it suddenly doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
Day by day, thanks to an unfortunate combination of coincidence, scandal, health issues and political turmoil, the G.O.P. majority keeps getting smaller.
This week, with lawmakers absent for medical reasons and the recent not-so-voluntary departures of the ousted former speaker Kevin McCarthy and the expelled Mr. Santos, the best G.O.P. attendance that Speaker Mike Johnson can muster as he tries to avoid a government shutdown is the bare-minimum 218 votes. That is before factoring in the impact of rough winter weather across the nation.
Another Republican, Representative Bill Johnson of Ohio, is resigning as of Sunday to take a job as a university president, lowering the number to 217 if Representative Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the 86-year-old dean of the House, is unable to quickly return from recuperating from a car accident. Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, is out until at least next month while undergoing cancer treatment.
As a result, the G.O.P. could soon be able to afford just a single defection on any matter if Democrats remain united and have no absences of their own.
“It’s going to be fascinating,” Mr. Blumenauer said as he tallied up the numbers and saw a chance for his prediction to come true.
Whether it does or not, Republicans are in a real numerical bind. At a time when House Republicans regularly face internal rebellion from hard-line conservatives, Mr. Johnson has absolutely no cushion if he chooses to rely strictly on the votes of his own party, which is part of the reason he cut a deal with Democrats on spending to avoid a shutdown later this week, further angering the hard right.
Democrats say the recurring scenario of leaning on them for must-pass bills is proof that even though Republicans are the majority party on the tally sheet, they don’t have a working majority because of their diminished forces and constant internal squabbling.
“When anything hits the fan, they don’t have 218,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the former longtime Democratic majority leader, referring to the number that represents a basic majority in the 435-member House. “They are not the majority party in this House.”
Mr. Johnson, the novice speaker, said it was a problem he could handle.
“I’m undaunted by this,” he said recently on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We deal with the numbers that we have.”
“We do have, I think, a lot of unity on the big, important issues that we’re really focused on,” Mr. Johnson said. “And I’m confident that we’ll get the job done and be able to demonstrate that we can govern well, and I think that’s one of the reasons that we will expand this majority in the next election cycle.”
At the very least, Mr. Johnson and his leadership team will have to get used to the constant health checks and airline schedule-watching that have become routine for Senate Democrats, who contended with a 50-50 Senate for two years before winning their still narrow 51-49 majority in 2022. Just a few canceled flights or cases of Covid can mean the difference between winning and losing on the floor.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, has learned to be judicious in scheduling votes when dealing with a spate of missing senators. He has also had to account for the availability of Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been called on to cast so many tiebreaking votes that she recently set the Senate record for doing so.
“It is tricky,” Mr. Schumer said. “You have to be patient.”
He said his secret was constant communication with his members about upcoming events such as weddings, scheduled medical procedures and important appearances back home, as well as trying to instill in Democrats a sense that they must pull together on big votes given their scant numbers.
“It’s sort of magic,” said Mr. Schumer. “It’s sort of a glue that comes together.”
Mr. Johnson, though, is in a sticky situation of a different sort since on almost any issue there seems to be one faction or another of his membership that breaks away. The ruptures are mainly on the right, but occasionally Republicans in politically competitive districts dig in their heels when the far right goes too far right.
Even on the issues that seemingly unite them against Democrats, like potential impeachments or contempt citations, Mr. Johnson will have to thread the needle precisely to succeed. In planning potential votes this week on holding Hunter Biden in contempt of Congress, Republican leaders said they would need absolutely all available hands on deck.
Eager to paint a contrast with Democrats in how they manage the chamber, House Republicans put themselves at a disadvantage by ending the remote proxy voting that Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, then the speaker, instituted during the pandemic. As a result, lawmakers out for medical reasons, such as Mr. Scalise or Mr. Rogers, cannot register their votes from afar as members of both parties routinely did during much of the last Congress.
“It was insanity that the first thing they did was abolish remote voting,” Mr. Blumenauer observed.
Democrats have a chance to snare one of the vacancies if they can win the Feb. 13 special election to fill Mr. Santos’s New York seat, potentially increasing their numbers to 214. But Democrats are then going to have a new vacancy of their own next month. Representative Brian Higgins of New York has announced he will give up his Buffalo-area seat in February, triggering a special election to fill that opening.
On the Republican side, the special election for Mr. McCarthy’s Bakersfield, Calif., seat will be held in late May, keeping that safely Republican seat open until then. The general election to fill the Ohio seat being vacated on Sunday will be held on June 11, leaving Republicans without that vote for five months.
A major uncertainty about the stability of the current party divide is whether others will bolt before the November elections. Dozens have already said they will not run again given the constant tumult in the House, and it is conceivable that at least a few of them would make an early exit should the right opportunity present itself.
Then there is the more grim threat to the majority noted by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, on social media last month.
“Hopefully no one dies,” she wrote.
Even with the shifting numbers, it is hard to see the Republican membership falling below that of Democrats, though it is possible that on some days, more Democrats than Republicans could be on the floor and voting because of illness or any number of other reasons. Democrats say that if that were to become a regular occurrence, they would not hesitate to capitalize on the situation.
“We’d elect a speaker,” Mr. Hoyer said.