When Representative Steve Scalise emerged Wednesday from the private party meeting where House Republicans narrowly nominated him to serve as the next speaker, he sounded anxious to get started. “We need to send a message to people throughout the world that the House is open and doing the people’s business,” Scalise told reporters.
The Louisiana Republican wanted an immediate floor vote so that his members could formally elect him in a party-line tally. He had reason to hurry: The pile of problems—both global and domestic—that Congress must address is growing fast, and the House can do nothing without an elected speaker. The federal government will shut down on November 17 if lawmakers don’t act. Ukraine needs more funding from the U.S., and Israel, suddenly at war with Hamas, could soon as well.
Scalise’s Republican foes, however, weren’t giving in. He needed the support of 217 of the House’s 221 GOP members in order to win the speakership, and defections began popping up almost immediately. Today more Republicans came out in opposition to his bid, and this evening Scalise announced he was withdrawing from the race. His time as the Republican nominee lasted less than a day-and-a-half.
What began as a personal vendetta against former Speaker Kevin McCarthy by a single Republican back-bencher, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, has spiraled into a much broader crisis—not only for the slim and fractured GOP majority but for the country and its allies around the world. “It’s very dangerous what we’re doing,” Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters yesterday. “We’re playing with fire.” How the impasse ends, and when, could determine whether federal agencies stay open and whether the U.S. lends more support to its allies overseas.
Here are three major issues that could hinge on the outcome of the speaker fight:
A government shutdown
In what became his final act as speaker, McCarthy averted a government shutdown by relying on Democratic help to pass a temporary extension of federal funding. But the Californian ended up sacrificing his dream job to keep the government’s lights on for a grand total of seven weeks. The supposed goal was to buy time to negotiate budget bills for the remainder of the fiscal year, but Republicans have already wasted nearly two of those weeks bickering over McCarthy and his replacement. “There’s no way we’re going to have a budget,” Representative Lois Frankel of Florida, a Democratic member of the House Appropriations Committee, told me.
Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, whom Scalise defeated for the speaker nomination, conceded as much, reportedly telling Republicans that they would need to pass another temporary extension once the House resumes normal operations. Jordan’s proposal called for the House to extend funding for another six months, which under the budget agreement Congress enacted in June would trigger an automatic 1 percent spending cut across the board.
The best hope to avert a shutdown might be if Republicans are forced instead to elect a caretaker speaker such as Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, who is currently the acting speaker pro tempore, or Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the House Rules Committee chair, who has good relationships with members of both parties. Some lawmakers have suggested either Republican could serve for a few weeks or months, helping to resolve the funding crisis before giving way to a longer-term leader.
Funding for Ukraine
Although he kept the government open before he was deposed, McCarthy refused to allow passage of $6 billion in additional aid to Ukraine sought by the Biden administration and bipartisan majorities in the Senate. Neither Scalise nor Jordan would commit to sending more money to Ukraine, bowing to pressure from GOP hardliners who have demanded that the U.S. secure the Southern border before approving another infusion of aid.
Democrats feared the election of either Scalise or Jordan could effectively end American aid to Ukraine. If Republicans are unable to secure enough votes on their own to elect a speaker, Democrats might agree to support a more moderate candidate on the condition that the House vote on an aid package, among other concessions. “I do think that a majority of House members want to continue to help Ukraine,” said Frankel, who sits on the subcommittee that oversees the foreign aid budget. “The challenge is having a speaker who would bring up a bill to allow us to do that. That’s the danger of a Republican candidate for speaker making a deal with extremists who say, ‘hell no.’”
Funding for Israel
Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel could reopen a path for Ukraine funding. Despite pockets of opposition on the far left and right, the Jewish state retains overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress; when Scalise left Wednesday’s party meeting, he was wearing both an American and Israeli flag pin on his suit jacket. Biden officials and congressional Democrats are already discussing a package that would combine funding for both Israel and Ukraine, in the hope that yoking the two together would help the Ukraine aid win approval.
The success of that strategy is not guaranteed, however. When the idea came up yesterday during a classified State Department briefing for members of Congress, Frankel told me that a Republican lawmaker, Representative Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin, started shouting ‘No!’ The outburst seemed to encapsulate a week of paralysis in a party that, until it picks a leader, can’t say yes to anything. “I’m semi-optimistic,” Frankel said with a sigh, “that at some point Republicans will come to their senses.”