Why Republicans seem stuck in selecting a new House speaker

Why Republicans seem stuck in selecting a new House speaker

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Whoever eventually prevails, the increasingly clear fractures in the party have raised questions about the next speaker’s ability to move legislation or remain in the post longer than their predecessor.

“I think they will face the exact same challenges, maybe more,” says Matthew Bartlett, a GOP strategist and former Hill staffer based in Washington. “Governing is tough, and it’s even tougher when everyone thinks they’re going to get everything their way.”

That said, leadership matters, says Republican political consultant Whit Ayres. 

“Conceivably, there could be a new leader who would provide the sort of leadership that people would be willing to follow,” he says. “Although that leader may be required to get some Democratic support in order to overcome the right-wing bomb-throwers in the caucus.”

If neither Mr. Jordan nor any other candidate gains the needed votes soon, one option under discussion would be to empower the acting speaker, Patrick McHenry, who is understood to have very limited powers, to conduct the House’s business until a new speaker is elected.

Key decisions looming

The stakes are high, with the government due to run out of money Nov. 17 and two allies – Israel and Ukraine – urgently seeking military aid and strong American leadership in the face of emboldened adversaries. Many Republicans expressed frustration with the political impasse, even as they appeared unable to resolve it.

“Most of our voters are tired of seeing the division, dissension, and discombobulation of our conference,” says Rep. Jodey Arrington, a Texas Republican who chairs the Budget Committee. “I think they want to see unity, especially with the backdrop of what’s going on in the Middle East.”

The upheaval is due in part to an ongoing identity crisis within the Republican Party, over policy differences on matters ranging from spending levels to foreign aid, as well as personality clashes. But the dysfunction goes beyond the GOP’s internal dynamics to Congress as a whole, where narrowly divided chambers are finding it difficult to operate under the institution’s traditional rules.

Getting a majority of the House’s 435 members to elect a speaker is extremely difficult when the governing party can only afford to lose four votes for its nominee. While in theory a centrist coalition from both parties could come together to elect a consensus candidate, the reality is that today’s political polarization would almost certainly make such an effort a nonstarter.

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Even if the rules were changed, allowing a speaker to prevail with just a majority of the majority, the party’s hard-liners would have plenty of other opportunities to cause trouble. 

Some Republicans are also regretting rules passed by the GOP majority after Mr. McCarthy became speaker in January, particularly lowering the threshold for the “motion to vacate” – the procedural move to oust the speaker. In the end, that proved to be Mr. McCarthy’s undoing when Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz brought the motion and he, seven other Republicans, and all Democrats voted to vacate the speaker’s chair. 

“We shouldn’t have a one-member threshold to vacate the speakership,” says Mr. Arrington. “No matter how strong of a leader you are, if the incentives encourage dysfunction and irresponsible behavior and bad outcomes, it’s going to be really hard.”

To a certain extent, the disarray is the culmination of a long-building split in the GOP base, with a populist “Make America Great Again” wing diverging from establishment types. But the implosion also has to do with a slow disintegration of Congress.

“We deposed the speaker for the first time in the history of the House,” says Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin. “Something like that doesn’t happen overnight or as a product of any one or small group of people’s ambitions. It’s a product of decades of institutional neglect.”

One area where the dysfunction has been playing out is in appropriations, which is supposed to consist of 12 parallel subcommittees in the House and Senate working on funding bills for the various parts of government. In recent years the process has frequently broken down – under both Democratic and GOP majorities – leading to a big “omnibus” bill hashed out at the last minute behind closed doors. Members have had little time to read it, let alone influence the funding being allocated to different departments or programs. A stated reason for Mr. McCarthy’s ouster was demands from conservative Republicans to avoid an omnibus. 

“Until we fix that [budget] process, there’s going to be continued dysfunction,” says Representative Gallagher. “So I’ve been asking the candidates, what’s your plan for fixing the process?”

The importance of trust

But in addition to a better process, many say, there also needs to be more trust. Mr. McCarthy, an affable Californian known for his ability to work behind the scenes to bring people together, was also criticized for trying to be all things to all people – leading many to doubt that they could take him at his word. Others said he reneged on key promises, including by making a bipartisan debt ceiling deal with President Joe Biden that allowed for higher spending levels than conservatives said he had agreed to. 

“Trust was a factor,” says Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, one of the eight who ousted the speaker, coming out of Wednesday’s internal GOP nomination meeting. 

Mr. Norman had been supporting Mr. Scalise for the speaker’s gavel. A Louisiana representative who garnered widespread support when he was shot and badly injured during a congressional baseball practice in 2017, Mr. Scalise had moved steadily up the leadership ladder. He served as whip and currently as majority leader. For some, that gave him the chops to handle the speakership job at a demanding time. For others, it was a reason to look for someone new.

Freshman Max Miller told reporters that despite Mr. Scalise doing “a phenomenal job,” he was backing fellow Ohioan Jim Jordan – and would like to see an entirely new slate of House GOP leaders, from the speakership down. 

“The best way we can continue to move on as a conference and to actually get work done is fresh new faces because trust has been shattered within that room,” Mr. Miller said. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect Mr. Scalise’s withdrawal from the race Thursday night, and to clarify that Mr. Scalise was shot at a baseball practice, not a game. 


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