It was another nonstop day in the Capitol. The clock ticked past 9 p.m. on Tuesday, and the two candidates for speaker of the House of Representatives — Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Steve Scalise (Louisiana) — were still meeting with Republicans in a bid to secure votes. The two are vying to succeed Kevin McCarthy, the former House speaker who was ousted last week in a historic vote, which — for the first time in 234 years — has left the third-highest authority in the country and second in the presidential line of succession vacant. The motion to vacate was filed by a single man, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, and backed by seven other members of the Republican Party’s hard-right faction. The ouster of McCarthy has plunged Congress into chaos and the United States into legislative paralysis.
Republicans have been called for a round of secret voting on Wednesday morning. If one of the two candidates obtains enough votes (217), his candidacy will be taken to the House, where it is expected that the Democrats, who are in the minority (with 212 seats), will vote against any of the Republican candidates. But on Tuesday, after intense proselytizing, declarations of intentions and various promises, there was still no certainty about who would be the Republican candidate. When questioned by reporters in the hallways of the Capitol, many Republicans were still undecided about whether they intended to support Scalise or Jordan.
Last weekend’s unprecedented Hamas attack and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war have added pressure to the institutional crisis in Washington. Gaetz’s somewhat nihilistic move could not have come at a worse time for U.S. international policy. With Congress closed, unable to discuss or vote on anything until a new speaker is elected, Republican lawmakers — many of whom have rushed to show solidarity with Israel — have their hands tied when it comes to proposing any measure, albeit symbolic, in support of the U.S. ally. Meanwhile, at least 14 Americans have been taken hostage by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
The clock is ticking. Aid to Ukraine is frozen, and November 17 — when the stopgap spending bill signed with the Democrats to avoid a federal shutdown will expire — is fast approaching. That was the measure that cost McCarthy his job. The vote to elect a new House speaker could happen as soon as tomorrow. But it is also possible that the uncertainty drags on for several days more.
Republicans will wait until they are sure they have a viable candidate before going to vote in the House. They want to avoid the spectacle seen last January, when it took 15 rounds of voting — another near-unprecedented case — for McCarthy to be elected House speaker. To ensure there is no repeat of this debacle, the Republican Party has altered the rules of the secret ballot. Until now, it was enough for a candidate to obtain 50% of the votes for their name to be brought to the floor. Now, that threshold has been changed to 217 votes, which will allow them to settle their differences behind closed doors and not in public.
Shift to the right
The only thing clear at this point is that both Jordan and Scalise represent a shift to the right, with respect to the direction set by McCarthy, who announced last week that he would not run again for the position. On Monday, however, he said he would be willing to return if Republicans asked him to. Several moderate Republicans maneuvered on Tuesday to gather support for his candidacy. Gaetz responded to this possibility on X: “It’s time to move on,” he said on the social network formerly known as Twitter, adding that he did not think McCarthy would secure enough votes. McCarthy himself later confirmed to reporters: “There are two people running in there. I’m not one of them.”
“A lot of people” < 218— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) October 9, 2023
Math is real.
Time to move forward. https://t.co/diJl5GBn4k
Jordan has the public support of former president Donald Trump, who continues to have enormous influence in the party. More importantly, around one-third of Republicans are Trump supporters: any presidential hopeful needs those votes to have a chance of winning the White House. Trump’s support for Jordan came as no surprise. Jordan is a Trump loyalist and helped the former president with his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which the real estate magnate still refuses to admit he lost.
“Jordan knew more about what Donald Trump had planned for January 6 than any other member of the House of Representatives,” said former Republican lawmaker Liz Cheney last week. Cheney took part in the bipartisan commission that carried out a six-month investigation into the 2021 attack on the Capitol. In the commission’s final report, Jordan’s name appears 22 times, some of them in incriminating passages. The idea that a lawmaker who sought to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden could end up leading the House has raised concerns among the moderates in the Republican Party.
Scalise, for his part, secured support on Tuesday from some centrists in the party, as well as from representatives from swing states. Some Republicans are concerned that last week’s infighting debacle could alienate swing voters, who sometimes vote Democrat and other times Republican. Until McCarthy’s ouster, Scalise was his second in command, although they had evident disagreements.
Both Scalise and Jordan have promised to permanently resolve the risk of a government shutdown, although it is not yet clear how they intend to achieve this. What’s more, Jordan has said that money destined for Ukraine — which has been frozen since before the speaker’s ouster last week — will be sent to Israel if he is elected House speaker.
In a speech from the White House on Tuesday, President Joe Biden said that the United States will make sure that Israel can defend itself “as we have always.” But for that, you need a functioning Congress.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition