The United States House of Representatives decapitated itself only days before the Middle East caught on fire. Political dysfunction risks damaging the ability of the United States to deal with growing foreign-policy challenges. Meanwhile, crises abroad provide heightened incentives for American politicians to break through political logjams at home.
In early October, a bipartisan team of House Democrats and eight Republican rebels deposed Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House and initiated a period of frenetic paralysis. Days later, Hamas launched a wave of terror against the people of Israel. The Middle East may stand on the precipice of a regional war. Iran has made threatening noises about intervening, and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon have also launched attacks against Israel.
The increasing instability in the Middle East compounds preexisting geopolitical uncertainty, as Russia’s Ukraine invasion drags on and tensions rise between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Funding for the federal government runs out by 17 November, so a potential government shutdown could be added to the mix of crises.
The spectacle of a headless House of Representatives only adds to that uncertainty. Half of the legislative branch of the federal government is now frozen in place. The sole business on the House floor since early October has essentially been failed votes for the next Speaker. While the Senate unanimously passed a resolution supporting Israel, the House has been silent.
This stew of political contention has a seasoning of irony. While the Republicans who led the charge against McCarthy present themselves as foes of Joe Biden, the paralysis of the House has probably increased Biden’s leverage right now. A Republican House Speaker would have a seat at the table to lay out the concerns of the GOP caucus and influence the course of national-security policy. Right now, though, the ball is in the White House’s and the Senate’s court.
In a televised address last week, Biden bundled together financial assistance for Ukraine and Israel. The leaders of the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the Senate have also supported a joint-aid package for both countries. Congressional Republicans – especially in the House – are more divided on support for Ukraine. A House caucus consumed with its own internal power struggles will be less able to come to some consensus on these issues and thus could further undermine its own bargaining position.
A new Suffolk University poll shows that Americans are weary of the House’s self-induced paralysis. Over two-thirds of voters – including 57 per cent of Republicans – said that “Congress needs to elect a Speaker as soon as possible” in order to deal with Ukraine, Israel, and the risk of a government shutdown. A YouGov poll last week indicated that a plurality of Republicans (43 per cent) disapproved of McCarthy’s ouster.
These global crises and sour polling have put new pressure on Republicans to settle on a Speaker. So far, two Speaker nominees (Majority Leader Steve Scalise and populist firebrand Jim Jordan) have gone down to defeat. Representing a range of viewpoints in the caucus, nine more Republicans are now vying for the GOP nod for Speaker. Republicans control the House by only the slimmest of margins, so the GOP nominee for Speaker will falter on the floor unless he or she can command the near-unanimous support of the conference.
To have a shot at grasping the gavel, any possible Republican Speaker candidate has to be broadly acceptable to moderates, traditional conservatives, and populists. This is a tall order, especially because there are considerable fundraising dollars and media opportunities to be found in tilting against the Republican “establishment” and the DC “swamp.”
The demands of global politics and government finances could also increase the possibility of some compromise that works around the Republican majority if it remains dysfunctional. Partisan realities still make it unlikely that a bipartisan coalition will elect some compromise Republican Speaker, but the strangeness of these days means that such a political shock can’t be completely ruled out.
Perhaps a more plausible workaround scenario would be the indefinite semi-reign of Patrick McHenry as temporary speaker. Notable conservatives, including National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have endorsed this course of action. An aide to two former Speakers, Brendan Buck wrote a much-shared New York Times column arguing that further legislation might not even be needed to empower McHenry.
Crisis might be a strategic lever for this approach. Buck observed that McHenry could hold a vote on a resolution condemning the Hamas attack: “McHenry would be daring members of the House to block consideration of policy that most seem to badly want to support, and if they were successful, it could break the seal on the ability to legislate under a temporary speaker.”
Crises are times of testing and crucibles of political imagination. If Republicans can’t rise to the challenges of the present, policymakers abroad and American voters will take notice.