Word spread through the Capitol’s Senate corridors about House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy not seeking the speaker’s gavel just as senators were about to cast the final vote before a weeklong Columbus Day recess.
As lawmakers, staffers and journalists alike were asking each other what they were hearing and reading on their phones, it was quickly apparent that senators on both sides of the aisle — but especially Republicans — understood the gravity of Thursday’s announcement. Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said it would not be possible for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his counterpart Harry Reid, D-Nev., to do all the deal-making with the President Barack Obama’s administration.
“The utter chaos of the Republican party must not threaten the full faith and credit of the United States and the American people. While negotiations on a budget deal continue, we should work together immediately to take the threat of default off the table,” Reid said in a statement that his office circulated soon after McCarthy’s news. “Republican chaos is likely to get worse before it gets better but the economic livelihood of the American people should not be threatened as a result of Republicans’ inability to govern.”
“It would be really, really helpful if we could knock off some of these big items that we have to deal with where we have deadlines while the speaker’s still there,” Thune said. “We need to do what we can to transact the business that has to get done before these deadlines, and if Speaker Boehner is there and willing, I’d love to see us get as much done as we can while he’s still around.”
The first deadline is for funding surface transportation programs, followed quickly thereafter by the need to raise the federal debt limit.
“Eventually, all this stuff has to clear the House too, and you know they’ll have to have the relevant members involved in those discussions, but I think that … Sen. McConnell will be involved in discussions with the White House I’m sure and presumably the Democrats in the Senate,” Thune said. “The question is, in terms of the partners we have in the House, I assume at least for the foreseeable future that’s going to be Speaker Boehner, and I guess I hope we can make the most of the circumstances as they are right now and get as much done as we can.”
For Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, the concern is not knowing with whom McConnell and company will be negotiating.
“Because I don’t know the dynamics it’s hard for me to say but all of us would like to see that this process culminated in the election of a speaker that gets the overwhelming majority of their members and then that way we can continue negotiations,” the Arizona Republican said. “It’s really hard to negotiate when you don’t have a speaker to negotiate with.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, said there were already too many deadlines stacking up. Isakson praised retiring Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, for making clear that he would remain in the office until the House Republicans can rally behind a successor.
“That’s good of him to do. You need a continuity of leadership until you replace him. That would be a good thing,” Isakson said. “He did an unselfish thing to step down, that’s an unselfish thing to agree to stay.”
New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the No. 3 man in the Democratic leadership said in a CQ Roll Call interview earlier this week that the House GOP would be “playing with fire” if the chamber fails to address the debt ceiling on Boehner’s watch. And on Thursday, he was not upbeat.
“It could make it harder. It could make it easier. Maybe there’ll be such disarray that … the mainstream conservatives in the House will just forget about the hard right. I don’t know,” Schumer said. “But, signs point to trouble.”
But perhaps the most pessimistic senator when it comes to the push to get business done before Boehner departs is Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican who previously served in the House.
“Nothing has to happen. It would be nice to get a few of these things out of the way, but I’d be surprised. The House is going to insist on having the new leadership negotiate it,” Flake said. “That’s how it works over there. It’s going to be tough.”
Matthew Fleming contributed to this report.
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