Republicans At The Crossroads

[ Posted Tuesday, October 10th, 2023 – 15:29 UTC ]

Republicans in the House of Representatives remain in disarray. That's probably not too surprising to anyone, since dysfunction is kind of their "brand" these days. But after the past few days, this is a lot more concerning to a lot more people. We should know, within the next two days or so, whether this is going to be a major impediment to American government or just another bump in the GOP's rocky road.

What has made it all more real is a new war raging in Israel. All of a sudden the fact that one house of Congress is paralyzed isn't a matter of: "Oh, just don't visit the National Parks during the shutdown, everything else will be fine," but rather of not being able to provide American military aid when it is needed. The consequences are far more dire, obviously.

The military aid isn't even the point, really. It is more that America cannot speak politically with one voice even when it is sorely needed on the world's stage. Instead of looking to us for leadership, people in other countries now look and see paralysis. Republicans used to care about stuff like this -- and this week will be a test of whether they still do or not.

The problem is the House has now gone a full week without a speaker. Instead, they have a speaker pro tempore who can only hold votes to elect a new speaker. Or maybe not -- nobody really knows. The law that created the speaker pro tempore position was one of the "continuity of government" ideas that arose after 9/11. It provides -- as the presidential line of succession also does -- a way for American government to continue even in a dire emergency where leaders die. But if we truly were in a dire emergency (say if it hadn't been Israel but some terrorist attack which killed the current House speaker), wouldn't we want the temporary person replacing him or her to have the power to act swiftly and decisively in response? The wording of the law is vague and completely untested (since we've never before seen a speaker deposed). Patrick McHenry could decide he does have the power to hold a vote on an aid package to Israel, and it would largely be up to the Democrats whether to challenge it on parliamentary grounds or not -- something that would be politically fraught, with such a bill.

But assuming that McHenry only does have limited power, what it means is that most of this week will be consumed with the speaker election process. Today, the Republican conference met and vented their spleens on each other (behind closed doors). A whole lot of them are angry with the eight members who ousted McCarthy, and those eight members are angry just in general (because unfocused anger is their brand).

Two candidates have been proposed, with a third waiting in the wings. Here is what conservative (but never-Trumper) New York Times columnist Bret Stephens had to say about these two choices:

You're asking me to pick my poison. I'd say Steve Scalise, the majority leader who once described himself as "David Duke without the baggage," is still better than Jim Jordan, but that's because almost everyone is better than Jim Jordan, the former wrestling coach. Republicans don't have particularly good experiences with former wrestling coaches who become speakers of the House.

Good point, Bret. You've got a candidate from the extreme right, and then a candidate from the even-more-extreme right. Either one could wind up being calamitous, in oh so many ways. If Steve Scalise won, we would almost certainly see a government shutdown next month. If Jim Jordan won, there would be no "almost" about it. And that's just in the short term.

The third option waiting in the wings is the guy they just tossed out -- Kevin McCarthy. He has indicated that if a spontaneous movement erupted to put him back in the speaker's chair (as a sort of compromise candidate to break a deadlock), he would indeed accept his old job back. Awfully big of him, don't you think?

Snark aside, Scalise and Jordan (but not McCarthy) are going to make official pitches to the whole party today, and then the conference is going to get back together tomorrow and hold a vote -- by secret ballot, behind closed doors. As the rules currently stand, any candidate who gets two-thirds of this vote then moves to the House floor where the entire body (Democrats included, in other words) will vote for speaker. A majority of those who are present and actually casting votes for someone is required to win (a vote of "Present" isn't counted in the total used to figure the majority, in other words).

This could, obviously, lead to extended chaos. Let's say one of the candidates wins two-thirds support in the GOP conference, but also that there is a core group of Republicans who are absolutely opposed to him becoming speaker. So the speaker vote on the floor falls short, over and over again (shades of January's speaker election). This would just shine a huge spotlight on Republican dysfunction, to the political detriment of all of them, while any Israel aid bill vote has to wait. Not a good look, in other words. But a very probable outcome, unless one of the GOP candidates gets overwhelming support in their secret ballot tomorrow (which is not likely, but could conceivably happen).

This is where a possible change in the rules comes into play. Some Republicans are pushing for their conference to adopt a different rule, even temporarily (just for this crisis, in other words). Instead of two-thirds, any speaker candidate would have to get a full 217 or 218 Republican votes to move to the floor (the precise number would depend on how many of them will be able to attend the floor vote). That way, the caucus would be united -- with a majority of the whole House -- behind one candidate before bringing the Democrats into the equation. This would mean it would only take a single House floor vote to elect the new speaker -- a much better outcome, in terms of how the public sees it.

But if the rule is changed it doesn't guarantee that any one candidate will ever be able to get that full majority in the GOP conference -- especially with a secret ballot. There are plenty of moderates who recoil in horror at having to vote for someone like Steve Scalise, much less Jim Jordan. And there are still the eight hotheads who would likely never vote for McCarthy (as some sort of compromise candidate).

So even with this rule change, it still might not mean having a new House speaker any time soon. Instead of endless votes on the House floor, we might wind up with endless secret ballots behind the closed doors of the GOP conference. Either way, it means a whole lot of delay (and no Israel bill).

Some have dreams of breaking this logjam with some sort of power-sharing agreement where moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans band together and elect some moderate and not-offensive Republican to the speaker's chair, in exchange for agreeing not to completely ignore Democrats in all decision-making. This could lead to government shutdowns not being a threat anymore, for instance. But at this point this seems so far-fetched it's barely even worth mentioning.

Maybe something like that could happen next week, after Republicans have struggled through their second week without a speaker. We'll see how the next few days play out. Will chaos reign well into next week? Your guess is as good as mine, with this bunch.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “Republicans At The Crossroads”

  1. [1] 
    andygaus wrote:

    Scalise may be disrespected by those who know him best, but Jordan is hated by anyone who has ever seen his smirking picture.

  2. [2] 
    dsws wrote:

    It sounds likely that Israel will intentionally murder more civilians than Hamas by the time this is over. It matters that Hamas started this round of murder, but each murder also matters, even when there have already been hundreds or thousands.

  3. [3] 
    dsws wrote:

    Some have dreams of breaking this logjam with some sort of power-sharing agreement where moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans band together and ...

    I want the entire Democratic caucus to hold together, and vote for a "moderate" Republican as speaker, ballot after ballot until a few Republicans break ranks and accept a Democratic choice of which Republican to put in charge. That would make it clear that the new speaker would have to remain acceptable to Democrats.

    Can't happen, of course. But if I'm going to spin a dream scenario, I'm not going to stop at a little bit of voice for a few "moderate" (far-right) Dems.

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    Israel never intentionally murders civilians, full stop. That's just not true.

    Individual soldiers might kill someone under the fog of battle, or bombings might be ordered that ignore the presence of civilians who are (sometimes intentionally) in the same vicinity as military targets. However, that is not even close to the same thing as staring an unarmed person in the face and killing them assassination style, which is what Hamas does. If an Israeli soldier were to do that they'd be court martialed and jailed for it.


  5. [5] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    The differing attitudes toward civilian deaths (and most other aspects of warfare) between the two combatants is God's doing.

    We know from 9/11 that Muslims (at least young Muslim men) are happy dying as martyrs in wars waged against infidels, on God's promise of "six-dozen virgins" in the next life.

    I've never heard about how Muslim women and children feel about martyrdom, probably somewhat less enthusiastic!

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