The continuing resolution that is keeping large portions of the federal government open – and which cost former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) his job – expires in 37 days. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) also are operating on borrowed time. A war has erupted in the Middle East and another still rages in Ukraine.
It would be a good time, perhaps, to have a fully functioning legislative branch of the United States government.
Alas, because there currently is no Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congress is effectively paralyzed.
In this week’s Allon Update we take a look at where the speaker saga stands, what might end the drama, and what the House is able – and, more importantly, unable – to do in the meantime.
Where The Speaker Of The House Saga Stands
After hearing from candidates yesterday in a private session, today the members of the House Republican Conference will meet to hold a secret ballot vote to decide who the party should advance to the floor as its nominee for Speaker of the House.
Two House lawmakers currently are running for the position: Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
There may also be a third: deposed “Speaker Emeritus” Kevin McCarthy. While it is unclear if Rep. McCarthy really wants his old job back (on Monday he magnanimously said it was up to his fellow Republicans), news reports claim there are up 80 House Republicans who have declared themselves in the “only Kevin” camp and who plan to “keep voting for him repeatedly” in today’s Republican Conference meeting.
As of early this morning, none of these men have the support of the majority of their GOP colleagues. And, to be clear, even if one of these candidates is able to secure a majority vote in the Republican Conference today, it is certainly not clear they will have enough votes on the House floor to win the speakership. That is because Democrats are expected to vote in lockstep for current Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). Remember that, back in January, Rep. McCarthy easily received a majority of House GOP members’ votes, but then struggled to win the 218 votes on the House floor required to secure the speakership.
How The Speaker Fight Might End
There are clearly some Republicans who believe this fight needs to end sooner rather than later.
On Monday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said, “The world’s watching what’s happening, and we need to come together and unify behind a Speaker.” Tom Doherty, a New York-based GOP strategist, told The Hill, “Having a speakership sitting vacant at the moment is obviously not good. It doesn’t serve us or our foreign partners any good not to have a Speaker of the House.”
What is clear is that ending the stalemate will require horse trading, particularly in the form of the rules that will eventually govern House proceedings under a new speaker.
Rep. Scalise already has said he would consider revising the controversial “motion to vacate” rule that allowed the challenge to, and eventual ousting of, Rep. McCarthy. Last week, a group of 45 House Republicans signed a letter calling for changes to the “motion to vacate” rule that would guard against such a motion being made by any one individual lawmaker.
Other rules changes might also be necessary. As The Hill noted, last week more than 90 Republicans signed a letter endorsing a temporary rules change that would require the GOP’s nominee for speaker to receive support from a majority of the House rather than a majority of the Republican conference. Under that plan, offered by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Chip Roy (R-Texas), the party’s nominee for speaker would need to amass 217 GOP votes among only Republicans before heading to the floor for a vote. (With two vacancies in the House, a majority is currently 217 votes as opposed to 218.) Rep. Jordan is reportedly in favor of this rules change while Rep. Scalise’s camp opposes it. (But, again, neither candidate could secure those votes as of this morning.)
Republicans are expected to vote on that latter provision this morning before they take up the vote on who should be their nominee for speaker. Here is what the process would look like if this temporary rules change is adopted: as Punchbowl explained this morning, the first round of voting would be by secret ballot. If 217 isn’t reached then lawmakers would get another chance to question the candidates, after which another secret ballot would be held. If, again, neither candidate reaches 217, there would be another round of question, followed this time by an open roll-call vote. “If the speaker nominee is still not at 217, there’s more questioning and then yet another roll-call vote. If the speaker nominee doesn’t have at least 185 votes at this point, the process starts all over again,” Punchbowl concluded.
In addition to these two rules changes, there may be other side deals the two candidates are making in order to secure support.
According to Politico, Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) asked yesterday what promises Reps. Jordan or Scalise had made to secure votes. Rep. “Jordan said his only promise was to ‘fight for you all’” while Rep. Scalise made it “clear that no one had asked him for anything.”
Regardless of any promises made, or the outcome of the vote to change the threshold of support needed to get to a floor vote, it is very unlikely that even the best horse trading will end this saga today.
Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.) left yesterday’s closed-door meeting and said the chances the GOP settles on a nominee for speaker today is “two percent.” Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas) said, “There is no clear frontrunner.” And Rep. Cammack said, “Even though I’m the eternal optimist, I don’t see us getting to a speaker tomorrow.”
In The Meantime, House Is At A Standstill
In addition to the fiscal year 2024 spending legislation and FAA and NFIP reauthorizations mentioned in the introduction, Congress is trying to tackle important priorities like antitrust policy, a farm bill, data security and privacy, and new rules for digital assets. Yesterday, President Joe Biden said he wants Congress to not only approve more military aid for Ukraine but spending for military and humanitarian assistance for Israel.
According to generally accepted rules, however, the House cannot approve any legislation without a speaker. It cannot even approve a proposed resolution condemning Hamas’ attacks on Israel, which is currently cosponsored by nearly 400 members of the chamber. It’s even unclear if Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the speaker pro tempore and de facto leader of the House at his point, can even listen in on the classified briefings to which a Speaker of the House is normally privy.
Democrats support this interpretation of the rules.
In a two-page document released last week, House Rules Committee Ranking Member Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) concluded, “Given the context and reasoning behind the rules … the plain language of the text, and the subsequent legislative history provided by both members [of Congress] and the [House] parliamentarian, it is evident that the acting speaker pro tempore is empowered solely to act in a ministerial capacity to facilitate the election of a new speaker or speaker pro tempore. … [T]his primarily means reconvening the House and presiding over the election, but it could also reasonably be construed to include powers such as recessing the House to allow for party caucus or conference meetings to determine the nominees.”
And, to be clear, that’s the manner in which the House is currently operating. The House is effectively paralyzed. There aren’t even any committee hearings scheduled.
Is there any hoping of anything getting approved in the days or weeks it could take to settle the speakership? Maybe …
Politico outlined three scenarios under which the House may be able to consider a resolution in support of Israel. On Monday, the inside-the-Beltway newspaper said:
A member could try to call up a pro-Israel resolution by unanimous consent, but there are questions about whether Rep. McHenry, who believes his authority is limited only to overseeing a speakership election, can recognize such a motion. Even if he did, any one lawmaker could object and kill the resolution.
The House could vote to give Rep. McHenry full speaker authority. That would require the support of a majority of members present and voting, “a tall order,” Politico said, “given the divisions in the chamber.”
Rep. McHenry could try to move legislation under his current, acting authority. As Politico noted, however, “the North Carolina Republican has pushed back on suggestions that he would do that.”
Politico reporters also put forward this question: what if the United States were to face its own attack by an enemy, or its own national emergency? Could the House do anything to address that eventuality?
It may try, but any major legislation approved by a speaker-less House almost certainly would be challenged in court by opponents of that legislation.
And so, for the moment future, the House – and by extension, the entire Congress – finds itself unable to do much of anything.