Stop me if this sounds familiar. The next-in-line House Republican is supported by a majority of his GOP colleagues to become speaker of the House... but because a faction of holdouts opposes him, his ascension to the post is uncertain, throwing the House into chaos and preventing any legislative business from being conducted.
Just a little more than nine months ago, that’s the position Kevin McCarthy found himself in. Now, his longtime deputy Steve Scalise faces the exact same situation.
In an internal Republican conference meeting on Wednesday, Scalise won his party’s nomination for the speakership, beating Jim Jordan in a relatively close 113-99 vote.
Normally, that would be the end of the story. A party might fight it out, perhaps even bitterly, behind the scenes, but then they would unite behind their nominee during the formal vote on the House floor. (Speakers of the House, unlike other congressional party leaders, must be elected by a majority of the whole House, not just a majority of their party.)
For a moment after Scalise’s nomination, it seemed like normalcy might prevail. Jordan magnanimously threw his support behind Scalise, and even offered to deliver a nominating speech for his former rival on the floor. GOP lawmakers told reporters to expect the full House vote later that afternoon.
Then, in a familiar pattern for House Republicans, everything fell apart. Lawmakers from across the GOP conference quickly began coming out of the woodwork to say they opposed Scalise and planned to vote against him on the floor. To make things even more confusing, not even the anti-Scalise faction is united: nearly every Republican defector has given a different reason for their opposition.
There are McCarthy diehards like Carlos Gimenez who plan to keep voting for the ex-speaker out of loyalty. (McCarthy and Scalise have a famously frosty relationship.) There are conservatives like Thomas Massie who want Scalise to outline a more clear plan on government funding.
There’s Ken Buck, who wants Scalise to affirm that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. There’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who believes Scalise should step aside to focus on his cancer diagnosis. There’s George Santos, who is upset Scalise hasn’t called him. And then there’s Nancy Mace, perhaps Congress’ most confounding member, who opposes Scalise because he once allegedly compared himself to KKK leader David Duke.
The list of holdouts — and their disparate reasons — goes on. In total, 13 House Republicans have said they’ll vote against Scalise on the floor, per a CNN whip count. Assuming full attendance, Scalise can only afford to lose four Republican votes to become speaker. (Notably, Scalise’s opponents are slightly different than McCarthy’s. Anti-McCarthy ringleader Matt Gaetz, for one, plans to vote for Scalise.)
Some of the GOP defectors seem gettable, requiring only that Scalise do things like clarify his position on the 2020 election, lay out a government funding plan, or call George Santos. But some others have taller asks: Scalise, for example, cannot simply not have cancer, as Greene seems to be requesting.
Until Scalise wins the rebels over, or the GOP turns to someone else who can, the House remains in a holding pattern. There is no currently scheduled vote for speaker, after plans to hold a vote yesterday were derailed once it became clear Scalise lacked a majority.
Meanwhile, as the House stands paralyzed, government funding runs out in 36 days and wars continue to rage in Israel and Ukraine.
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Your speaker race questions, answered.
One of my favorite parts about writing Wake Up To Politics is being able to answer the excellent questions you all send in. Keep them coming: I’ll be answering some I’ve received about the speaker’s race over the next few days...
Q: Does all House business stop until a new speaker is elected, similar to what happened at the beginning of the new term? Is the Speaker Pro Tempore in the presidential line of succession? — Mike N.
A: Practically speaking, yes, House business has ground to a halt since McCarthy was ousted. But does it have to? That’s the question of the hour.
For starters, this is not exactly the same as when the House lacked a speaker during the prolonged McCarthy balloting in January. Congress is no longer in a state of nature: members have been sworn in, a rules package has been approved, there’s even a speaker pro tempore, Patrick McHenry. As Georgetown’s Matt Glassman has pointed out, the House has passed a resolution under similar circumstances in the past, at times when the speakership went vacant in the middle of a session.
So the House does have the power to pass a piece of legislation — for example, a resolution signaling support for Israel — if a member puts one forward. What we don’t know, though, is whether McHenry has the full agenda-setting powers of the speaker to put legislation on the floor himself.
Remember: McHenry is the first person to serve as speaker pro tempore in this particular way, deriving his status from a post-9/11 rules change that directs House speakers to create a secret list of lawmakers who could temporarily take their place in case of an emergency. (McHenry was at the top of McCarthy’s list.) Here’s what that 2003 rule has to say about McHenry’s position:
In the case of a vacancy in the office of Speaker, the next Member on the list described in subdivision (B) shall act as Speaker pro tempore until the election of a Speaker or a Speaker pro tempore. Pending such election the Member acting as Speaker pro tempore may exercise such authorities of the Office of Speaker as may be necessary and appropriate to that end.
The key part is “authorities...as may be necessary and appropriate to that end.” Does that mean McHenry can only conduct business relevant to electing a new speaker? Or are his powers more broad? No one seems to agree. Some scholars like Glassman have taken the broader view. Democratic lawmakers, like Rules Committee ranking member Jim McGovern, have argued the opposite.
McHenry himself has been all over the place on this, originally signaling he wouldn’t move any legislation — but then telling Politico this weekend, “if we need to act as a government [on aid to Israel], we will.” McCarthy has flip-flopped too, saying “the House can do nothing without a speaker” on Monday and then suggesting that McHenry had the full powers of a speaker on Tuesday.
So, really, nobody knows. Personally, considering the origin of the speaker pro tempore position, it would seem odd to me to create an acting speaker in the name of continuity of government, but then not allow them to do much of anything. If some emergency really does strike Capitol Hill and some huge number of lawmakers has been killed, would we really want to wait around for a speaker’s election to be held before Congress could move legislation?
At the end of the day, though, it will really be up to McHenry — and a compliant House majority — to set his powers. It remains a live question, and it could become even more relevant pretty soon, if the speakership remains vacant for a while and lawmakers want to move legislation on government funding, Ukraine, or Israel.
(To answer Mike’s second question, one thing we know for certain is that McHenry is not in the presidential line of succession. There is no duly elected speaker, so the speakership is technically vacant even if someone is temporarily acting in the role. Therefore, the speaker would just be skipped over in the line of succession, should that become relevant while McHenry is in office, just like a Cabinet position would be skipped over if it were similarly vacant.)
More news to know.
- Israel has formed an emergency unity government as the country steps up its offensive against Hamas.
- Speaking in Tel Aviv this morning, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the American death toll in Israel has climbed to 25.
- According to the New York Times, the U.S. has “collected multiple pieces of intelligence that show that key Iranian leaders were surprised by the Hamas attack in Israel,” undercutting reporting that Iran helped plan the assault.
- In a speech last night, Donald Trump criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and called the militant group Hezbollah “very smart.” Ron DeSantis, who has been growing more combative towards Trump, quickly seized on the comments.
- Pushing aside any lingering doubt that he is running for re-election, President Biden filed paperwork to appear on the Nevada primary ballot, his first official filing of the 2024 campaign.
- Mitt Romney told a group of donors that he’s encouraged Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Mark Warner (D-VA) to challenge Biden in the primary, to no avail.
- Divisions are emerging over Israel among congressional Democrats after a contentious caucus meeting last night. One Democratic lawmaker resigned from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) over a pro-Palestinian rally held by the group’s New York City chapter a day after the Hamas attacks.
- A group of New York Republicans announced plans to introduce a resolution to expel Rep. George Santos (R-NY), who recently received new criminal charges. “This week, the House should settle all family business,” Rep. Nick LaLota (R-NY) said.
- Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-WI), who exploded at a group of high schoolers earlier this year, reportedly derailed a briefing on Israel yesterday with a “curse-laden outburst.”
- Year-over-year inflation was 3.7% in September, holding steady from the month before.
The day ahead.
White House: President Biden will meet with a group of CEOs today to “hear their perspectives on the economy.” Vice President Harris will continue her college tour with a stop at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas. First Lady Biden will hold a reception to mark Italian-American Heritage Month.
Congress: The Senate is on recess. The House could vote on a new speaker but, as always, who knows?
Supreme Court: The justices have nothing on their schedule.
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