WASHINGTON – House Republicans spent Thursday fighting among themselves in closed-door meetings, trading blame and insults and casting about for a way forward as they failed again to coalesce around a speaker candidate.
It was a day of uncertainty and whiplash on Capitol Hill, and the House remained paralyzed as war raged overseas and a government shutdown grew near. House members were unable to act on even the most basic of legislation while President Joe Biden prepared to request a $100 billion emergency national security spending package that included aid for Israel and Ukraine and would need congressional approval.
By Thursday evening, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the hard-right Republican nominee for speaker, appeared no closer to winning the post after meeting with some of the 22 mainstream Republican lawmakers opposed to his candidacy. Nevertheless, Jordan said he would push for another vote to become speaker, scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m., even though he was bleeding support and calls were increasing for him to step aside.
“He needed to know there is no way forward for his speakership,” Rep. John Rutherford of Florida, one of the holdouts, told reporters after meeting with Jordan.
In the face of unyielding opposition, Jordan began the day by proposing to hit pause on his candidacy and support a plan being floated by centrist lawmakers in both parties that would temporarily give the interim speaker, Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, explicit power to conduct legislative business.
That proposal met with furious backlash from rank-and-file Republicans, including many of Jordan’s far-right supporters, who said empowering McHenry – a stand-in appointed to his post after the ouster of Kevin McCarthy as speaker – would effectively cede control of the House floor to Democrats and set a bad precedent. Within hours, Jordan reversed course again and said he would move forward after all with his bid to try to win the post quickly.
It was the latest abrupt turn in a Republican speaker drama that has played out for more than two weeks, underscoring the depth of the party’s divisions and disarray. Unable to unite behind a candidate to lead them, the GOP now cannot even agree on a temporary solution to allow the paralyzed House to function while members sort out their differences.
After falling short in two consecutive votes for speaker, Jordan, a hard-line co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus and a favorite of former President Donald Trump, had told members Thursday morning that he did not plan to force a third vote right away. Instead, he said he would back the plan to expand the powers of McHenry, whose current role is primarily to hold an election for a permanent speaker.
But during a second, more contentious closed-door meeting of Republicans, Jordan’s backers demanded that he fight on and denounced the plan to bring up a resolution empowering McHenry.
“We made the pitch to members on the resolution as the way to lower the temperature and get back to work,” Jordan said. “We decided that wasn’t where we’re going to go. I’m still running for speaker. I plan to go to the floor and get the votes and win this race.”
The session grew raucous as some members waved pocket-size copies of the U.S. Constitution and suggested that the plan violated the country’s founding principles.
Hard-right Republicans condemned the idea as a partnership with Democrats who have been calling for a coalition government. McHenry helped McCarthy negotiate a deal with Biden earlier this year to suspend the debt limit and impose spending caps, which was vehemently opposed by his party’s right wing.
“It’s a giant mistake to give the Democrats control of a Republican majority,” said Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, who backs Jordan. He added: “What they’re doing right now is walking the Republicans off the plank. We don’t deserve the majority if we go along with a plan to give the Democrats control over the House of Representatives. It’s a giant betrayal to Republicans.”
Many lawmakers emerged saying the proposal was dead on arrival.
“Just reading the room, I think it’s dead,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida.
Inside the meeting in the basement of the Capitol, tempers ran hot as the GOP feuding over the speakership dragged into a 17th day, with members airing grievances and lamenting the chaotic state of the chamber.
At one point, McCarthy, R-Calif., lashed out at Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, the ringleader of a small band of hard-right rebels who forced a vote to remove him more than two weeks ago and thrust the House into uncharted territory.
“I was speaking, and Matt Gaetz tried to interrupt. I told him to sit down, and he sat down,” McCarthy said later, adding: “I think the entire conference screamed at him. I think the whole country would scream at Matt Gaetz right now.”
Gaetz laughed off the exchange.
“He loses his temper sometimes,” Gaetz said of McCarthy. “Maybe it’s the Irish in him.”
Amid the bickering, Jordan’s supporters urged him to fight on and call for a third vote on his candidacy on the House floor.
“I’m with Jim Jordan until Jim Jordan says he doesn’t want to do it,” said Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida.
McHenry holds the position of speaker pro tempore under a House rule instituted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It requires that the speaker secretly prepare a list of lawmakers to temporarily assume the post in the event that it should suddenly become vacant. McCarthy’s ouster this month activated the rule for the first time, and McHenry, a close ally of his, was at the top of the list.
But because the situation is without precedent, the scope of an acting speaker’s powers is a matter of dispute. Some lawmakers in both parties believe they should eliminate any uncertainty by passing a resolution to explicitly empower McHenry to conduct legislative business for a set period of time. They have been discussing doing so through early January, though the timing was a point of debate.
Jordan’s waffling came after he fell well short of the majority he would have needed to be elected speaker Tuesday, and he was defeated again Wednesday when the number of Republicans refusing to back him grew.
The roadblock Jordan has encountered is a rare instance of the party’s more mainstream wing – normally those who seek compromise and conciliation – breaking with their Republican colleagues in defiance of the ultraconservative faction led by Jordan. They have been the targets of savage threats from right-wing activists allied with Jordan, who have embarked on an intense pressure campaign to try to install him as speaker.
It also underscored the seemingly intractable divisions among Republicans – as well as the near-impossible political math – that led to the ouster of McCarthy as speaker two weeks ago and that have so far thwarted the party’s attempts to choose a successor.
Republicans were growing increasingly exasperated about the situation, which could have grave political consequences for their party and has caused chaos at a time of crisis both at home and abroad.
“Maybe we just need to get into a room more often and hash it out and yell at each other,” said Rep. Kat Cammack of Florida, a supporter of Jordan who described the state of the Republican conference as “absolutely frustrated.”
“Bring back caning,” she joked.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.