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As US House Seeks New Speaker, Key Issues Go Unaddressed

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, arrives as House Republicans meet behind closed doors to try to unite around him as their new nominee for speaker, at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 16, 2023.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, arrives as House Republicans meet behind closed doors to try to unite around him as their new nominee for speaker, at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 16, 2023.

In the two weeks since former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was forced out of his job, the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has been unable to coalesce behind an alternative, leaving several simmering issues unaddressed by lawmakers.

In the interim, a new crisis has erupted in the Middle East, the war in Ukraine has seen a major new offensive by invading Russian troops, and the United States has crept steadily toward a spending deadline that could force a government shutdown in November.

Experts say there are few, if any, historical precedents for one-half of the U.S. Congress being leaderless during such a fraught period in history. Some have expressed concerns about the message it sends to the American public and the country’s allies and adversaries around the world.

Roots of the problem

McCarthy’s tenure as speaker began in January with a tortuous 15-vote marathon on the House floor that saw the California representative offer concessions to hard-line members on the party’s far right. That included a rule that allowed a single member of the body to force a vote of the full House on a motion to “vacate” the job of speaker.

Representative Matt Gaetz invoked that rule on Oct. 3, and eight Republicans, as well as all House Democrats, voted in favor, ousting McCarthy from the job. The Republican advantage in the House is so slim that only about four of its members can break ranks if the Republicans are to maintain a majority on any given vote.

Since McCarthy’s ouster, Representative Patrick McHenry has been serving as acting speaker, a role that does not give him the authority to bring bills to the floor for a vote.

The Republican caucus is currently preparing to vote on the candidacy of far-right Representative Jim Jordan for speaker. The polarizing politician is a close ally of former President Donald Trump who, among other things, has supported the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

No vote on Israel

On Oct. 7, the Hamas militant group launched a brutal assault on multiple communities across southern Israel, targeting and killing well over 1,400 people, including the elderly and young children. The group also took nearly 200 hostages into the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Under normal circumstances, the House most likely would have produced a joint resolution of support for the Israeli people and might also have taken steps to assure a flow of military and humanitarian aid to the Israeli government.

But without a speaker in place, the body has been unable to act on the crisis.

In an email exchange with VOA, William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program, said he has concerns about the message that a dysfunctional Congress delivers to the rest of the world.

“The continuing paralysis in the U.S. House of Representatives has prevented the passage of measures supporting Israel in its time of peril,” he wrote. “The inability of the U.S. government to act on this issue, aid to Ukraine, and a budget for the current fiscal year is weakening confidence in U.S. leadership around the world.”

Ukraine, government spending

The House has been similarly unable to act on a number of other high-profile issues. President Joe Biden’s administration is seeking additional authority to provide Ukraine with the weapons and other assistance it needs to fight off Russia’s full-scale invasion of its country.

In the days since the House lost its speaker, Russia has mounted a fierce new assault on the town of Avdiivka, north of the city of Donetsk, part of Ukrainian territory that Russia claims to have annexed.

In an appearance on CBS News’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Biden renewed his request for Congress to act on aid for both Ukraine and Israel. However, a portion of the House Republican caucus, including speaker-designate Jordan, has been highly skeptical about providing more aid to Ukraine.

At the same time, the U.S. is approaching a deadline to pass multiple government spending bills. Failure to do so would result in a partial shutdown of the federal government next month.

The House and Senate agreed to a stop-gap spending measure in late September that postponed the date of a shutdown into November. However, in the past two weeks, with the House consumed by the task of choosing a new speaker, little apparent progress has been made, increasing the likelihood of a shutdown.


“Broadly speaking, there are few historical precedents for this,” Dan Mahaffee, senior vice president and director of policy for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, told VOA.

Mahaffee said the drama in the House is forcing Americans to ask themselves, “Is the institution rudderless?” An additional concern is what would happen if a more serious crisis befell the body.

“Heaven forbid we had an issue with the House where you had a speaker incapacitated or some harm came to them,” he said. “This demonstrates that it's difficult to fill that [job] or to have an acting speaker do much in such an event.”

Lesson being learned

Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who represented his Northern Virginia district in the House from 1995 to 2008, said what we are witnessing in the body today is a crop of relatively new legislators getting a lesson in how things work in Washington.

“When I was there, we had five- and six-seat majorities, and we operated just fine, because we recognized you had to operate as a team, and you had to compromise,” he told VOA.

Now, though, he said, “You have a new group of people in there that don't know how government can work. They're just sent there to say, ‘No,’ and stop the other guy.”

“So, it's just got to work its way out,” he said. “It may take another week or so. Who knows? But they have to work that out within the caucus.”

Davis said that in the short term, the crisis is harming the “Republican brand.” In the longer term, however, he said that he doesn’t believe the current crisis will seriously hurt the party.

“The election’s a year from now, and once you nominate a presidential candidate, that generally tends to suck up all the oxygen in the room,” Davis said.