It’s Day 20 with no House speaker, and lower-level names are starting to reach for the gavel
Day 20 without a House speaker, and Republicans found themselves starting over on Monday — bumbling ahead with few ideas about who will lead, what they are fighting over and when they will get Congress working again.
Nine lower-level Republican lawmakers are now running to be speaker, leader of the House and second in line to the presidency — none with any clear shot for the gavel. Senior-most is Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the former campaign chief who is now the GOP whip. The gruff former hockey coach is disliked by Donald Trump, but the two spoke over the weekend.
Late Monday, House Republicans are retreating behind closed doors, as they have most days since the ouster of Kevin McCarthy, to hear from the candidates ahead of internal party voting.
McCarthy himself calls the whole spectacle “embarrassing” for the House Republicans whose majority is being wasted away and for the U.S. government that cannot fully function.
What started as swaggering bravado when a contingent of hardline Republicans led by Rep, Matt Gaetz of Florida ousted McCarthy at the start of the month has morphed into a full-blown crisis of governing as dysfunction and dangerous, bitter infighting prevent the normal operations of Congress.
The federal government again risks a shutdown in a matter of weeks if Congress fails to pass funding legislation by a Nov. 17 deadline to keep services and offices running. And more immediately, President Joe Biden has asked Congress to provide $105 billion in aid — to Israel and Ukraine amid the overseas wars and to shore up the U.S. border with Mexico. Federal aviation and farming programs face expiration without action.
Yet factional power plays are running stronger on Capitol Hill than any sense of urgency to resolve the standoff as the House Republicans are essentially eating their own — first by ousting McCarthy just nine months on the job, then rejecting the next nominees to take his place, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and hard-edged Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan.
What had started as far-ight complaints over McCarthy’s leadership in budget battles is now a string of political and personal grievances over various leaders, factions and personalities.
“Is there anybody that can get there? I don’t think there is,” said Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, who has repeatedly suggested Trump should be elected House speaker.
Trump himself has largely stayed in the background, but his presence is everywhere. The former president who is now the Republican frontrunner to challenge Biden in 2024, helped sink Scalise’s nomination by backing Jordan instead. Emmer had reached out to Trump over the weekend, and the two had a polite call, according to a person who insisted on anonymity to discuss the private conversation.
But when more centrist GOP conservatives in the House refused to back Jordan, worried about elevating a far-right Freedom Caucus founder as speaker, Trump was unable to salvage the Ohioan’s nomination. The House Republicans dropped Jordan as their nominee late Friday.
The House has never been here before, having ousted its own speaker for the first time in history, and now led by a nominal interim speaker pro tempore Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the bow-tie wearing chairman of the Financial Services Committee whose main job is now to elect a more permanent speaker.
Some Republicans — and Democrats — would like to simply give McHenry more power to reconvene the House and get on with the routine business of governing. But McHenry, the first person to be in the position that was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as an emergency measure, has brushed back those overtures.
In the Senate, Republican leader Mitch McConnell who is trying to helm the party through a tumultuous time, has had little advice for his colleagues on the other side of the Capitol.
“Look, I’m not an expert on the House. I have my hands full here in the Senate,” McConnell said Sunday on CBS. “We’re gonna do our job and hope the House can get functional here sometime soon.”
For now, Emmer and the others will try their hand at uniting the broken Republican majority around each of their candidacies. Among those running are potential leaders, to be sure, but no singular figure who stands out as an obvious choice.
Along with Emmer seeking the nomination are Rep. Mike Johnson, an affable lawyer from Louisiana, and Rep. Kevin Hern, a former McDonald’s restaurant franchise owner who now leads the conservative Republican Study Committee, the largest bloc of House conservatives.
Also running are Rep. Byron Donalds, a Florida newcomer aligned with Trump; Austin Scott of Georgia, who had briefly challenged Jordan with a protest bid, and Pete Sessions, a former party leader from Texas.
Others include Rep. Jack Bergman of Michigan, Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania and Gary Palmer of Alabama.
Internal party elections are set for Tuesday, but with nine candidates it could take multiple rounds to choose a nominee ahead of floor voting by the full House, possibly later this week.
Desperate to end the infighting, some GOP lawmakers are demanding that the candidates sign a pledge to back whoever is eventually nominated, as the Republican majority’s rules state.
Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, who leads a group of mainstream conservatives, said he was looking for a speaker candidate who would be willing to put his own political career on the line to move House Republicans forward.
“Whoever navigates us through these difficult waters, which will be shrapnel filled, they may need to give up their own political career for the good of this country,” he said.