News Analysis: Republican disarray leaves House unable to function

Temporary House leader Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., talks with Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, as Republicans try to elect Jordan in a second ballot to be the new House speaker, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
House Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), left, talks with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) in the House chamber Wednesday. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
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The fight for control of the U.S. House of Representatives took a sharp turn Thursday as Republicans proved unable to agree on any plan to consider or pass legislation, leaving the leaderless chamber helpless to address the crises facing the country.

Without a functional lower chamber, Congress cannot do anything to respond to Russia's ongoing war on Ukraine, Israel's planned invasion of the Gaza Strip and a looming government shutdown that could leave millions of military service members and other federal workers without pay.

But in the more than two weeks since eight GOP rebels, joined by Democrats, voted to oust Bakersfield Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker, Republicans, who control the lower chamber, have been unable to overcome their differences and choose a new leader who can win a simple majority vote in the House.

Last week, the party tried electing House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana as speaker, but he withdrew after failing to win enough support. Next up was Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, former President Trump's pick, who lost two votes on the floor.

On Thursday, the party considered a new plan: empowering North Carolina Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, a longtime McCarthy ally who is serving as the House's temporary speaker, to pass legislation. But despite Jordan announcing his support for the idea Thursday morning, the scheme failed to win the backing of the majority of the GOP.

Jordan indicated he will try a third time to win a majority Friday morning. Whether he will ever be able to do so is an open question.

"The Republicans have proven they are incapable of reaching consensus," Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, told The Times.

For now, the U.S. government remains powerless to pass new laws, fund its operations or even name post offices.

House Republicans face another deadline: Nov. 17, when government funding is set to run out. If Congress does not secure funding, millions of service members and other federal workers could go without pay during the holiday season.

In a speech from the Oval Office on Thursday evening, President Biden said he planned to send Congress "an urgent budget request to fund America's national security needs to support our critical partners including Israel and Ukraine."

The chaos in Washington and the divisions in the Republican Party are the "ongoing effects" of Donald Trump's presidency, Longwell said. "The toxic forces he unleashed on the party are still playing out," she said, adding that today's GOP is "made in Trump's image."

If Republicans are unable to choose someone to lead the House, "at some point you have to reach out to Democrats," she added.

Throughout the GOP's squabbling, Democrats have remained united behind their nominee for speaker, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

Jeffries has indicated his party could be open to the idea of empowering McHenry to pass legislation. As of now, Democratic votes would probably be needed to make that a reality.

But Republicans using Democrats to empower McHenry "would set off the fuse that would certainly end in a civil war within the GOP," Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) warned reporters Thursday.

Jordan is a far-right favorite who Democrats routinely note has never passed a law throughout his 16 years in Congress. He is, however, a favorite of the party's MAGA faction. The former president endorsed the Ohioan for speaker shortly after McCarthy’s ouster, and the Trump loyalists who made it impossible for McCarthy to govern without help from Democrats remain strong supporters of Jordan.

Read more: The sexual abuse scandal that haunts Trump's pick for House speaker

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who led the eight GOP rebels' charge against McCarthy, has faced fury from members in his party who blame him for this predicament.

During the party's closed-door meeting Thursday, Gaetz tried to interrupt McCarthy while he addressed lawmakers. The Californian told Gaetz to sit down. After the meeting, McCarthy told reporters that he did not yell at Gaetz, though "the whole country, I think, would scream at Matt Gaetz right now."

"Remember, it was crazy eights led by Matt Gaetz and every single Democrat that put us into this situation," McCarthy added.

McCarthy said a resolution to empower McHenry would not come to the floor until it has the backing of a majority of Republicans—even if a majority of the chamber is likely to back it.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said he supported empowering McHenry so the House can process bills.

"Arguing with each other over who's the most popular — it's not real work," Crenshaw told reporters. "The real work is done on our committees, it's passing legislation. And we need to get back to that."

Other Republicans were skeptical of the plan. Indiana Rep. Jim Banks told reporters the move "is the biggest F-you to Republican voters I’ve ever seen."

"The move for McHenry provided a good off ramp," Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, told The Times in a statement. The argument against empowering McHenry is that "we should not do the unprecedented thing because we have to fix the other, ongoing unprecedented thing."

Leading the fractured Republican caucus would require McHenry — or whoever gets the gavel — to master the same difficult task that led to McCarthy's downfall: keeping both hard-right Republicans and more moderate conservatives happy.

While both McCarthy and Jordan cast doubt on Joe Biden's presidential election victory in 2020, McHenry voted in favor of certifying the electoral college results, putting him at odds with the Trump-aligned right wing of the GOP but potentially making him more acceptable to Democrats.

McHenry was also a key negotiator of the budget agreement with the White House in May, which many Republicans opposed and which McCarthy backed away from over the summer as he tried to appease the right wing.

Empowering McHenry "was a way to lower the temperature and get back to work," but the party "decided that wasn't where we're gonna go," Jordan told reporters Thursday. "I'm still running for speaker and I plan to go to the floor and get the votes and win this race.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.