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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Scalise and Jordan announce bids for speaker as vacancy paralyzes the House

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaking to journalists in the Rayburn room after being ousted as Speaker of the House, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 3, 2023.

By Carl Hulse and Luke Broadwater

The second-ranking House Republican and the chair of the Judiciary Committee both announced their campaigns for speaker earlier this week, setting the stage for a bruising struggle pitting some of the most conservative GOP leaders against one another.

One day after the ouster of Kevin McCarthy as the House’s leader threw the chamber into a state of paralysis, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, said he would try to become speaker. Jordan’s bid sets up a challenge with Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, currently the No. 2 House Republican, who also announced he would run, and potentially others.

The contenders were all sounding out potential supporters, but no real deliberations were to occur before Tuesday.

The vacancy at the top of the House was creating mounting concerns at the Capitol and the White House about the fate of spending legislation — including hoped-for funding for Ukraine — due in 40 days.

At the White House, President Joe Biden began an announcement on student loan debt relief Wednesday by addressing chaos in the House and calling on lawmakers to change the “poisonous atmosphere in Washington.”

“We cannot and should not again be faced with an eleventh-hour decision or brinkmanship that threatens to shut down the government,” he said. “And we know what we have to do, and we gotta — we have to get it done in a timely fashion.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers also raised alarm about the predicament Congress found itself in “I want my country to be at work,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Appropriations Committee. “We have a job to do.”

After a historic vote to remove McCarthy from the speakership Tuesday, lawmakers quickly departed Washington and scattered to their districts around the country, abandoning the Capitol as Republicans remained deeply divided over who could lead their fractious majority. The sudden departure and the stasis in the House meant that little could be done in Washington even as Congress faced a mid-November deadline to keep the government funded.

Even if the House were able to select its new speaker sometime next week, it would take time for that person to get up to speed.

“It is going to take a while to get the train back on the tracks,” said Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., a former House member who has close ties to his GOP colleagues in that chamber.

The comments underscored the chaos now gripping the chamber, without the ability to conduct legislative business, until a successor to McCarthy is chosen. The decision by McCarthy to not seek the post again after being unceremoniously deposed at the hands of the far right touched off a competitive race to succeed him.

Discussions on the future of the conference were being led by Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina. McCarthy, R-Calif., had named McHenry first on a list of potential interim speakers in the event of a calamity or vacancy, but his primary task is to preside over the election of a new speaker. McHenry has long dismissed the prospect of seeking the top post himself, although he could face a push to draft him if the party is unable to coalesce around another choice.

Other names that have surfaced as potential contenders include Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the Rules Committee chair; as well as the No. 3 House Republican, Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who, according to people who have talked with him, is backing Scalise and angling to take over the No. 2 post of majority leader.

If it does come down to Scalise versus Jordan, the race will be a contest of two men further to the right than McCarthy. Both men voted to object to the certification of Biden’s 2020 victory as former President Donald Trump peddled lies about widespread election fraud, and both have been chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee. Jordan is also the co-founder of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, which has antagonized a succession of House speakers.

Both men also have faced scrutiny of their past. Scalise apologized in 2014 for having spoken in 2002 at a gathering of white nationalists, and a political journalist said that he had once described himself to her as “David Duke without the baggage,” an apparent reference to the former Ku Klux Klan leader. Jordan has denied accusations that he turned a blind eye to complaints of sexual abuse committed by a doctor at Ohio State University decades ago when he was an assistant wrestling coach there.

Under the current tentative schedule, Republicans intend to hold a party meeting Tuesday at which the contenders will be able to make their case before their colleagues, with the possibility of picking their choice for speaker for a possible floor vote Wednesday.

The nominee would have to win a majority of the House, a tall order given Republicans’ slim majority and the rift among them that made it so difficult for McCarthy to win the post and do the job for the nine months that he held it. Right-wing Republicans have made clear that they will not support a speaker without assurances that they will see their priorities, including enacting deep spending cuts and severe immigration restrictions, met.

That is nearly impossible to promise given that Democrats control the Senate and the White House. And the situation could be a recipe for further dysfunction on Capitol Hill, most immediately in negotiations on federal spending. The House and Senate must agree by mid-November on the 12 annual appropriations bills to fund the government in the fiscal year that began Sunday, something that cannot be done without a speaker in place.

Should a new Republican speaker be chosen, the pressure would be immense for that person to push for spending levels far below what McCarthy had agreed to in a debt deal with Biden in the spring. Changing the terms of that deal would prompt a clash with the Senate, which is adhering to the agreement.

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