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‘And now what?’ McCarthy ouster leaves an ungovernable Congress in Washington

Legislative activity is paralyzed until the election of a new House Speaker but the ability of Republican hardliners to hold Congress hostage threatens a much longer stalemate

Kevin McCarthy, center, walks back to his office after the House of Representatives voted to remove him as speaker on Tuesday, October 3.
Kevin McCarthy, center, walks back to his office after the House of Representatives voted to remove him as speaker on Tuesday, October 3.JIM LO SCALZO (EFE)

The historic vote had just ended. For the first time in history, a Speaker of the House of Representatives had been removed after a motion introduced, moreover, by a congressman from the more extreme wing of his own party. At that moment, a cry went up from the Republican bench: “And now what?” That is the question on everyone’s mind on Capitol Hill in the wake of Kevin McCarthy’s ouster. The legislative activity of the House is paralyzed until the election of a new speaker and there are still no clear candidates to succeed McCarthy. In addition, the ability of Republican hardliners to hold Congress hostage threatens a much longer stalemate.

Congress is divided. The Democrats hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate. The House of Representatives, with two current vacancies — Democrat David Cicilline and Republican Chris Stewart — is dominated by the Republicans (221 to 212). It was previously already very difficult for any legislation to be passed. At two decisive moments, McCarthy gambled on reaching agreements with the Democrats: first, to suspend the debt ceiling and prevent the government from defaulting on its financial commitments, sparking a rebellion among the radicals in his party. Secondly, to approve a temporary budget extension to avoid a partial shutdown of the federal government, which cost him his position.

The House of Representatives must now elect a new Speaker. In January, at the beginning of the legislature, it required 15 rounds of voting to appoint McCarthy, who had to make concessions to overcome the resistance of the hardline Republican wing. The paradox of the November 2022 legislative elections was that voters often punished the more extreme candidates, but this has ended up strengthening their influence. The slim majority that emerged from the polls in the House of 222 to 213 seats left the decision-making power to the 20 or so congressional members of the Freedom Caucus, the most radical Republican arm.

McCarthy has already announced to his supporters that he will not present his candidacy before the new election of a House Speaker, although he continues to enjoy the highest amount of support among his followers. His ouster is a warning to anyone who might choose to replace him: the radical Republicans, strengthened by the turn of events, will make the same or even greater demands on the new candidate than they placed on McCarthy. Simply put, the lesson is that the party will not tolerate any concessions to the Democrats.

McCarthy ordered the opening of a formal investigation against Joe Biden as a preliminary step to a possible impeachment to try to satisfy the extremists in his party and prevent the closure of the federal government’s non-essential services, but the Republican hardliners have proven insatiable and also wanted to punish the president with a shutdown.

A bipartisan agreement to elect a Speaker of the House from among the pool of moderate Republicans is extremely unlikely, so whoever wishes to succeed McCarthy will have to jump through the hoops demanded by the radical Republican minority. At the same time, it will remain difficult for the new Speaker to forge agreements with the Democrats and, as such, the threat of an ungovernable Congress is spreading.

No clear candidates

For the time being, North Carolina congressman Patrick McHenry has assumed the role of House Speaker on an interim basis, as his was the first name on a secret list of substitutes provided by McCarthy to the Clerk of the House at the beginning of his term. McHenry chairs the Financial Services Committee, one of the most important in the House, and is very close to McCarthy, as evidenced by his appointment. It will be difficult for him to replace McCarthy permanently after his traumatic dismissal.

Another potential natural candidate would be Steve Scalise of Louisiana, number two in the Republican caucus behind McCarthy, although less of an ally of the former speaker. However, Scalise is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia, so he does not represent a simple solution either. Third on the Republican ticket is Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who would be another possible choice, but he is not a party heavyweight nor does he have recognized leadership. Elise Stefanik, the highest-ranking woman in the caucus, and Tom Cole, who chairs the Rules Committee, are also in the running.

A candidate requires an absolute majority of the votes cast on the floor to be elected. Democrats are likely to back their own leader, Hakeem Jeffries, who won several rounds of balloting in January when the Republican vote was split. Republicans are likely to try to reach a consensus on a name before bringing it to the floor, so as not to repeat the spectacle of January’s 15 votes, but there is no guarantee they will succeed.

The first consequence of the paralysis of the House is that the laws authorizing spending for the new fiscal year will not be processed. The United States does not have one single budget law, but a dozen. Every year Congress must approve — with a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate — 12 appropriations bills for the different government departments. The last time it did so within the allotted timeframe was in 1997. Now, an extension has been agreed to keep the administration operating at full pace, but only until November 17. If the corresponding laws have not been passed by then, the partial shutdown, which was narrowly avoided, will come into effect unless another temporary measure is passed. Radicals oppose any kind of extension and have made clear the price to be paid for ignoring their demands.

Democrats voted en bloc to remove McCarthy, who on Tuesday refused to make any concessions to preserve his position. Several members of Congress had made it clear that they were not going to bail McCarthy out for free, and even less so after he ordered the investigation into Biden without much basis for doing so. But while Democrats may be tempted to rejoice in Republican chaos and division, congressional gridlock is also backfiring on them. Even when it appeared clear that the threat of a government shutdown was being propelled by the hardline Republican wing, many voters held Biden responsible.

Former president Donald Trump, who had previously pressured the Republican radical wing to elect McCarthy, has quietly dropped him without doing anything to intervene and was also a proponent of provoking a federal shutdown. On the day of the motion against McCarthy, Trump limited himself to complaining on Truth, his social network, about the infighting: “Why is it that Republicans are always fighting among themselves, why aren’t they fighting the Radical Left Democrats who are destroying our Country?” he wrote.

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