House Republicans must mend gaping splits in their conference if they are to succeed in picking a new speaker – as dangerous global crises in Israel and Ukraine expose the steep cost of their malfunctioning majority.
The two declared candidates, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, must demonstrate their capacity to either control or co-opt hardliners who ousted Kevin McCarthy last week and are making the United States look like an ebbing superpower that cannot govern itself – let alone lead a world in turmoil.
Republicans on Wednesday are meeting for internal secret ballot elections to determine who will become their nominee to be second in line to the presidency. But the gravity of outside events is apparently doing little to shake the GOP out of its endless internal conflict because serious doubts remain over whether either Scalise or Jordan can win the necessary overwhelming support of the Republican conference in an eventual floor vote of the full House.
The House GOP already looked deeply negligent with time running out to stave off another government shutdown drama by the middle of next month. But if the House remains paralyzed much longer it will undermine the country’s capacity to respond to the horrific Hamas assault on Israel. And Ukraine’s battle to survive as a sovereign state will soon reach a critical point if its next aid package doesn’t make it through the House.
Republican lawmakers met Tuesday night as Jordan and Scalise made their pitches. The situation is so fraught because the tiny House GOP majority means that a candidate for speaker can only lose four Republican votes and still win the gavel in a full House vote. Democrats refused to save McCarthy from a revolt by eight hardliners last week and on Tuesday named their leader, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, as candidate for speaker, suggesting they will sit on the sidelines again, content to expose the dysfunction in the GOP ahead of next year’s election.
Rep. David Valadao, a California Republican who faces a tough reelection fight, said it could be difficult for either Scalise or Jordan to win outright. “I think both candidates are going to struggle. … But I don’t know exactly where their numbers are,” Valadao said. “It seems like they are both scrambling and they’re both working hard. So I don’t know if anyone is super confident right now.”
The faces are different but the GOP fault line remains the same
A week on from McCarthy’s rejection, after less than nine months as speaker, the fundamental fault line in the party remains as glaring as ever. Far-right Republicans have demands for massive spending cuts but fail to acknowledge that Democratic control of the Senate and the White House means that GOP leaders have no choice but to eventually compromise. McCarthy fell after using Democratic votes to pass a stopgap bill to keep the government open, fearing that Republicans would pay a harsh political price for a shutdown that could, over time, affect millions of Americans.
The key question on Wednesday will be whether Scalise or Jordan can unite enough of the party behind them before a full floor vote, which could happen as soon as later that day. Republicans are conducting the initial process behind closed doors to avoid a repeat of the public demonstration of disarray that unfolded during the 15 rounds of balloting McCarthy required to win the top job in January. They’ll be debating and voting on a proposed change to conference rules to raise the threshold for winning the nomination – from a simple majority of the conference to a majority of the current House – as part of their effort to avoid January’s theatrics. Both Jordan and Scalise committed to supporting one another if they become the nominee, lawmakers said after Tuesday’s candidate forum.
Rep. Mike Garcia of California warned after the forum that the fate of the speakership was still up in the air. “I think it’s 50/50 odds right now,” he said. Some of his colleagues were even more pessimistic. Rep. Kat Cammack of Florida said, “No one is close to 217.” Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, who is backing Jordan, was asked the chances of a new speaker being selected Wednesday and replied: “I’d put it at 2%.”
Jordan, a vehement supporter of Donald Trump who’s echoed his false claims of election fraud in 2020, has the former president’s backing. The Ohio Republican, who was a co-founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus, has devoted his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee to trying to prove Trump’s accusations that the government has been weaponized against him as he faces four criminal trials and is also a leading figure in the impeachment probe into President Joe Biden.
Jordan said he had a plan to head off a new government funding cliff-hanger, but he’d have to reconcile the demands of right-wingers and also get such a measure through the Senate and the White House. “Nobody wants a shutdown,” Jordan said. Several lawmakers in the meeting said the Judiciary chairman said he’d pitch for a long-term stopgap plan that cut spending by 1% to allow time for passing individual spending bills.
Rep. Don Bacon, a key moderate from Nebraska who is leaning Scalise’s way, suggested he was pleasantly surprised by Jordan’s argument. “Because of his past, I think we expected to hear the Freedom Caucus message. It was not that. It was very pragmatic,” Bacon said Tuesday.
Scalise is also an authentic conservative and vocal supporter of Trump. (Both men voted against certifying Biden’s win in 2020.) But he’s known as less of a flamethrower than Jordan. And as a member of leadership with fundraising bona fides, he could be more palatable to moderate Republican lawmakers in more than a dozen districts that paved the way to the narrow GOP majority in last year’s midterms and that will be critical to its hopes in 2024. The Louisianan emerged from the meeting Tuesday evening warning that the country needed a Congress that can work. “What people have really liked about my approach is I’ve been a unifier,” he said, though such skills would face an extreme test if he wins the gavel.
If neither Scalise nor Jordan is able to win sufficient support, there could be an opening for a compromise candidate that all wings of the party could get behind. Some freshmen have been pushing for a return of McCarthy. But the former speaker asked that he not be nominated in the race – without closing the door to getting his job back.
“There are two people running in there. I’m not one of them,” the California Republican told CNN’s Manu Raju.
Even if a new speaker does emerge on Wednesday, they will face the same relentless pressure imposed by a tiny majority, the split balance of power in Washington and a GOP that has riotously resisted the efforts of the last three Republican speakers to unify the conference and provide long-term governance.
Most immediately, the victor will have to decide whether to try to amend the rule that any one member can call a vote to oust the speaker – a concession McCarthy had offered to hardliners in order to win the gavel in January. Then, looming a few weeks away, is a possible repeat of the crisis that led to McCarthy’s defeat and the current power vacuum in the House. Unless Congress passes more funding by November 17, the government will close down, creating a series of adverse consequences, including the possibility that troops go unpaid and public services are severely disrupted.
To avoid this scenario, the House will either have to pass a series of complex spending bills in a month – a near impossibility given their size and the time wasted on the speaker’s race – or opt for another short-term spending patch that significant numbers of Republicans may oppose. Even if the House can manage to pass a spending plan, any measure acceptable to the entire House GOP is unlikely to win support in the Senate or the White House since hardliners are demanding cuts far below those previously agreed to by McCarthy and Biden earlier this year.
A Speaker Scalise or Speaker Jordan – or whoever can get the job – would almost certainly have to make the same fateful choice that faced McCarthy. Do they shut down the government if they can’t jam concessions out of the White House or Senate? Or seek to punt the choice down the road with a temporary funding bill that will probably need Democratic votes to pass? Jordan’s approach that calls for 1% spending cuts would likely be a non-starter among Democrats, meaning he would need to convince moderate Republicans it was in their interests.
The House must also soon wrestle with the president’s request for more than $20 billion in military aid to Ukraine as it fights the Russian invasion. Many Republicans oppose additional funding, and it’s another measure that would need Democratic votes to get through the House. The question has become even more complicated following the attack on Israel, with some Republicans arguing that the US should send the Jewish state as much help as it wants while being reluctant to continue propping up the Ukrainian war effort.
Such is the complexity of the untamed nature of the GOP majority that further turmoil certainly lies ahead, even if Republicans somehow settle on a new speaker on Wednesday.