Washington, DC – The next speaker of the United States House of Representatives will face a gruelling task: maintaining near unanimous support among a divided Republican caucus while reaching agreements with Democrats to fund the government.
Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy found out the hard way that the two jobs can be at odds with one another. When he struck a deal with Democrats to temporarily fund the government on Saturday, he sparked a Republican backlash that culminated in his removal from the speakership position.
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The Republicans have a thin majority in the House, so the same small faction of conservatives — led by Congressman Matt Gaetz — that toppled McCarthy can also remove his eventual successor. That has instilled an atmosphere of uncertainty moving forward.
“There’s a fear that they will just continue to do this to any speaker. And obviously, that creates a really chaotic environment where the House can’t consider bills,” said Rachel Blum, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma.
With that threat hanging over the next speaker, experts say the House and the US government more broadly are facing the possibility of chronic dysfunction in the months ahead.
McCarthy, a California conservative, was removed in a 216-210 vote on Tuesday, with the entire Democratic caucus joining eight Republicans to remove him.
Now, House Republicans are privately deliberating to choose the next speaker, with Patrick McHenry serving as the acting leader of the chamber.
Jim Jordan, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and former head of the right-wing Freedom Caucus, has announced his candidacy for the role. So has Steve Scalise, the House majority leader.
Whoever wins will need to appease Gaetz and his fellow disruptors in the Republican caucus while running a functioning chamber.
The government is divided: Democrats control the Senate and the White House, while Republicans are in charge of the House. Given that split, Congress is not expected to advance major legislation.
But the legislative branch — composed of both the House and the Senate — must pass a budget to fund the government. The recently approved stopgap funding bill that cost McCarthy his gavel will expire on November 17.
If lawmakers fail to approve further funding, the government will shut down, which would bring some agencies to a halt and cause disruptions in the pay of federal workers.
Another compromise to secure a government budget will be more difficult this time around, experts say.
“I can’t see the next Republican speaker stepping into that role and taking from this McCarthy episode the lesson that he should continue to compromise,” Blum told Al Jazeera. “It seems that any speaker is going to have to put up a little bit more of a fight in order to maintain the speakership.”
Another issue at stake is Ukraine aid — a top priority for President Joe Biden’s administration. Many right-wing Republicans are sceptical of providing more assistance and would likely use their leverage over the speaker to disrupt it.
The White House is seeking billions in additional aid to Kyiv. According to the Congressional Research Service, the US legislature has appropriated more than $113bn for Ukraine since the Russian invasion of the country began last year. It is not clear when those funds will run out.
Why did the Democrats let McCarthy fall?
With so much in the balance, some observers are questioning why the Democrats did not bail out McCarthy in his hour of need.
While Gaetz is largely credited with toppling McCarthy, the overwhelming majority of the votes against him came from Democrats.
Every single Democrat present for the vote backed Gaetz’s motion to vacate the speaker’s chair. A handful of Democratic votes would have allowed McCarthy to keep the speaker’s gavel.
Adam Cayton, a political science professor at the University of West Florida, said that if the Democrats had voted to save McCarthy, the move would have been unprecedented.
Cayton explained that while McCarthy’s removal is a first in US history, having a minority-backed speaker would “also be really out of the ordinary”. He stressed that the House operates on majority rule.
“It also would have been unprecedented for the minority party to support a speaker of the other party, to let him stay in office in spite of not having the support of a majority of the chamber,” Cayton told Al Jazeera.
McCarthy had angered Democrats from the start of his tenure as speaker in January. Early on, he removed three Democratic lawmakers from their committees, including booting Representative Ilhan Omar from the foreign affairs panel.
And last month, he opened an impeachment inquiry against Biden over his son Hunter’s business dealings, which the White House described as “extreme politics at its worst”.
Moreover, McCarthy ruled out negotiating with the Democrats to get their votes this week. “They haven’t asked for anything. I’m not going to provide anything,” he told CNBC earlier this week.
In a statement before the vote, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries squarely blamed Republicans for the impasse, accusing them of empowering “right-wing extremists” and urging them to resolve their “civil war”.
Jeffries also explicitly invoked the impeachment push. “Rather than work with us to solve problems for everyday Americans, extremism continues to run rampant in the House of Representatives,” he said.
But Jennifer Nicoll Victor, a political science professor at George Mason University in Virginia, faulted the Democrats for siding against McCarthy. She felt the move was unwarranted, particularly if their motive was to rebuke McCarthy’s antagonising conduct.
“If in fact, it was a sort of a petty, emotional or reactionary kind of response that, to me, seems anti-democratic, against good governance, against the best practices of how democracies are supposed to work,” Victor said.
“Political parties are supposed to respect their political opponents’ rights to power in a democracy,” she explained. “Being spiteful about helping some extreme faction depose your political opponents — I think goes against the norms of democracy.”
Despite the grim outlook, a deadlock in the House is not inevitable. There are several scenarios where the chamber can do its job despite the political realities spelled out by McCarthy’s removal.
Republican moderates and Democrats could form a bipartisan majority to pass legislation, but analysts say that would be unlikely given the political polarisation in the country.
It is also not a foregone conclusion that Gaetz and his allies will have it out for the next speaker the way they had McCarthy in their crosshairs. University of Oklahoma’s Blum said Gaetz and his fellow rebels may back down after achieving the visibility and power they desire.
“One path forward is that the speaker can at least unite the Republican caucus, so they can agree and get things done,” she told Al Jazeera. “Or they could end up with another speaker who has to govern with support from Democrats.”
But for Victor, the likeliest outcome is that dysfunction will prevail, with the Gaetz faction feeling emboldened. Moderates may even rebel against a future far-right speaker.
“We’ll probably just hobble through that way — whether that means they can’t get the spending done and we have another shutdown, or if the debt ceiling becomes another issue at some point, or no new legislation gets done because they can’t get their act together,” she said.
“It seems like a dysfunctional situation.”
The only silver lining, she added, is that this Congress’s term will expire in a little more than a year. “So there is an endpoint.”
Source: Al Jazeera