GOP fails to elect a speaker. This time it’s not due to hard-liners.
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In a show of backbone that surprised many, these members declined to coalesce behind the latest GOP nominee, despite intense pressure from Jordan allies and despite the prospect that it would prolong this period of disarray in the House. Many made clear they were put off by Mr. Jordan’s tactics in the leadership jockeying. They said they did not want to reward the band of Freedom Caucus members and allied conservatives who had brought on the chaos of the past few weeks by ousting Speaker McCarthy and trying to bend the will of the majority to their demands.
“When you have people that broke the rules, and … now they’re saying, ‘You know, we need you to get on board’ – it doesn’t work for some of us,” Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, who cast his vote today for Mr. McCarthy, told reporters on Monday night.
After the initial vote Tuesday afternoon, the House went into recess as the Jordan team tried to regroup. While his team projected confidence that another round of voting would take place later in the day, at press time it looked like a second vote would take place on Wednesday. There were also questions about whether the holdouts would eventually cave, if offered sweeteners or if it became clear this was the only way to get the House working again – or if their stance might actually inspire some Jordan supporters to defect.
The House has now been brought to a standstill for two weeks, with no speaker to authorize floor activity – a highly unusual state of affairs for the modern Congress, despite recent gridlock.
Empower the temporary speaker?
If Mr. Jordan can’t consolidate support, one fallback option increasingly under discussion would be to empower Speaker Pro Tem Patrick McHenry for a short period of time. Democrats, for their part, are pushing for half a dozen Republicans to support Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.
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Whoever ultimately wins the gavel, the turmoil of the past two weeks does not bode well for that person to govern the Republican conference – let alone the House. Amid a raft of pressing issues, from a Nov. 17 deadline to fund the government to Ukraine’s and Israel’s urgent calls for military aid, the new speaker will face daunting challenges with razor-thin margins.
“If we don’t have a speaker in the chair, we don’t have the ability to govern,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and recently met with the White House about concerns that the Israel-Gaza war could escalate and involve U.S. ground troops. “The United States is projecting weakness. And we can’t afford to project that dynamic anymore.”
The Hastert rule and beyond
Since the mid-1990s, House Republican speakers have followed an informal principle known as the Hastert rule: The majority of the majority must support a measure before it can come to the floor for a vote. The idea was to ensure that only legislation broadly acceptable to Republicans would become law, and to prevent measures from passing with more support from the other side.
But recently, some Republicans complain, that “majority of the majority” rule has been replaced by something different – a small band of GOP hard-liners calling the shots on policy matters and even dictating the speakership itself.
“We have a minority of the majority kicking our butts,” Representative Bacon, who represents a Nebraska district that Mr. Biden won in 2020, told reporters Monday night. “They’ve been orchestrating this since January to get to this point with Mr. Jordan. And I think it’s unacceptable.”
The eight Republicans who combined with Democrats to oust Kevin McCarthy constituted less than 4% of the House GOP conference, effectively forcing the other 96% to bend to their will.
Those eager to demonstrate that Republicans can govern effectively were loath to reward such tactics by supporting another hard-liner like Mr. Jordan.
A standout wrestler who went nearly undefeated in high school and college, he has cultivated a reputation as a fighter – some would say a bully – in Congress. He co-founded the Freedom Caucus in 2015 to challenge GOP leadership, and helped bring down Speaker John Boehner later that year.
But it’s not so much Mr. Jordan’s past reputation that is responsible for the resistance he faced among institutionalists. Rather, it’s the circumstances of the past two weeks and what they would be rewarding – “reinforcing this behavior and power dynamics,” says Liam Donovan, a former staffer for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and now a lobbyist.
Indeed, Mr. Jordan’s tactics of building support in recent days appeared to alienate some mainstream Republicans who might have otherwise supported him. In particular, after he lost an internal speaker nomination contest to Rep. Steve Scalise last week, his offer to endorse Mr. Scalise – but only for one round of voting, and only on condition that Mr. Scalise would then return the favor – irked many. Mr. Scalise then bowed out.
“You’re telling me that’s the way a team works? Not any team that I’ve ever played on and certainly not a winning team,” Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania told reporters last night.
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But hard-liners have an asymmetrical advantage over frustrated colleagues like Mr. Kelly: They are willing to bring the wheels of government to a screeching halt in the name of reining in a bloated bureaucracy. By contrast, institutionalists – however conservative on government spending or other matters – have a vested interest in keeping government functional.
“So while they may have been pushed to the point where they are willing to adopt those tactics, there is an inherent reluctance to do that because at the end of the day these guys want to be team players,” says Mr. Donovan, the GOP lobbyist. “They think it’s important to unify and get back to their job.”
Paradoxically, the “most approximate avenue to stability” at the moment may be electing Jim Jordan as speaker, he adds.
And moderates have more to lose by blocking a candidate, adds Matt Glassman, senior fellow at Georgetown University in Washington. Whereas hard-liners’ brand is strengthened by resisting the party, he says, moderates depend on the party for resources and campaign help.
“They have a sense of party loyalty embedded in them, in part driven by these needs of electoral help, but it’s also baked into the cake of who they are,” says Mr. Glassman.
To be sure, Mr. Jordan comes with plenty of liabilities.
As a wrestling coach at Ohio State from 1987-1995, he overlapped with a doctor who sexually abused at least 177 athletes over two decades, according to an independent report. At least six former wrestlers say they reported such incidents to Mr. Jordan, who has denied knowledge of the abuse.
In Congress, he has few legislative accomplishments. Since being elected in 2006, not a single bill he sponsored became law, though he was a co-sponsor on 64 bills that did. The Center for Effective Lawmaking, a joint project of the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University, has ranked him as one of the least effective House Republican legislators. Former Speaker John Boehner once called him a “legislative terrorist.”
But Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, of the Main Street Republicans caucus, told reporters that most of the reasons he’d heard for voting against Jim Jordan were about “petty squabbles” and “the transgressions of yesterday.”
“We need to ask ourselves, who is the speaker for tomorrow?” he said. “Who is going to give us the best chance to secure conservative wins while avoiding a government shutdown? Who is going to give us the best opportunity to manage the different personalities in our conference?”
And indeed, as a darling of conservative media, Mr. Jordan is seen as someone who could provide some cover for House Republicans until they can get the government funded – even if it means some unpopular moves, including another temporary stop-gap measure like the one that proved to be a last straw for Mr. McCarthy’s detractors.
In comments to Hill reporters, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky predicted Mr. Jordan would enjoy a year or two of immunity from right-wing “potshots.”
“His brand is the gold standard with the Republican base,” he said.