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‘Type A’ personalities paralyze House after historic McCarthy ouster

McCarthy's replacement must solve a ‘problem with the followers,’ Lott says

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., makes his way to the House floor Tuesday for votes that led to his ouster as speaker.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., makes his way to the House floor Tuesday for votes that led to his ouster as speaker. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — Rep. Patrick T. McHenry raised his right arm high in the air Tuesday afternoon and delivered his first gavel slam as speaker pro tempore so fiercely the block of wood he struck and his signature bow tie both shook.

So, too, did the Republican caucus as it careened from procedural chaos to rhetorical combat, from mistrust to mayhem.

Out was Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who tried for nearly nine months to manage a caucus one member described Tuesday as a “powder keg” by time and again trying to placate the conservative bloc, led by Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz, that ultimately joined with Democrats to push him out.

“There’s not a playbook on this,” Rep. Steve Womack told reporters in the surreal moments after the 118th House became the first in U.S. history to kick out a sitting speaker. Seconds later, the Arkansas Republican launched into an assessment of the large and loud personalities within the GOP conference: “I mean, they’re all Type As. … And it won’t take much for some people to set them off.”

Being a psychiatrist or sociologist is not a requirement for the next speaker, but a background in either might not hurt. So far, the candidates that have declared speaker runs — Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio — lack such professional expertise.

Without a clear heir to McCarthy, Republican members will return Tuesday for a candidate forum in what could be a wild race to decide who will be the 56th speaker of the House. Even President Joe Biden, who served on Capitol Hill for 36 years, was not sure Wednesday how to advise the person Republicans next week could elect to manage their rowdy conference. “That’s above my pay grade,” he told reporters when asked if he had any words of wisdom.

The reactions of some lawmakers and experts as McCarthy looks to exact revenge on those who booted him from the job he long coveted could be summarized this way: Who would even want the job? After all, Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., a McCarthy ally who was clearly shaken by the now-former speaker’s removal, vented Tuesday evening: “Frankly, one has to wonder if the House is governable at all. I wouldn’t wish this job on anyone.”

“Having Damocles’ sword of another speaker deposing is probably something that would give any sane person pause,” Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina, said a Wednesday email. “I think one of the lessons learned out of Tuesday’s vacating the chair is: Where is the line for any sort of compromise between a minority faction among the Republicans and the other two Democratic players, namely the Senate and the White House?

“There’s going to have to be some kind of ‘working majority’ of 218 within the House to get anything done, and the unwillingness of the Gaetz-led group to work with the Democrats to keep the government open, let alone functioning, is probably a major debate within the search for a suitable speaker,” Bitzer added. “Whoever can bridge that canyon within the conference is a natural candidate.”

Jordan and Scalise began making their cases to their GOP mates Wednesday that they fit that description. Both wrote “dear colleague” missives and will make their cases in person next week.

But one GOP member, Texas Rep. Daniel Crenshaw, said Wednesday the next speaker should avoid the kinds of early moves that helped end McCarthy’s turbulent run with the gavel.

“I think extracting promises from anyone running for speaker is a quick way to hamper them and sabotage the process,” he told reporters, also admitting he is concerned there is no potential or declared candidate — yet, at least — who could get the votes needed to secure the office.

But one former Republican lawmaker said Wednesday it would be difficult for the eventual speaker to refuse to make some promises in return for support on the floor.

“It does seem Scalise and Jordan have momentum, and one would likely endorse the other if they know they’ve lost the ballot count. But the question remains 218,” the number of votes needed for a majority, said David Jolly, a Florida Republican member from 2014 until 2017. “Even if they eject Gaetz, which is unlikely before the speaker vote, he and his allies still have their votes on the floor. So any candidate still must replicate what McCarthy did in January.”

And that January election of the speaker took 15 votes over three days before McCarthy’s election was secured when six of his GOP critics, including Gaetz, voted “present” rather than for another candidate, thereby lowering the total he needed to win.

Promises made and not kept was a reason cited by some GOP members who voted to boot McCarthy. And Democratic lawmakers interviewed Tuesday cited the former speaker’s untrustworthiness, namely their contention he walked away from a June debt-and-spending deal with Biden, as one of the many reasons they declined to save him. In addition, GOP Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina said the former speaker promised to move bills she said would boost women, a claim McCarthy on Tuesday night denied.

Time crunch

But keeping promises on legislation also would cut into scant remaining floor time this calendar year. And the House has lots on the docket, bills that could lead to the new speaker facing his or her own motion to vacate if they bring them to the floor — and take further time away from passing fiscal 2024 spending bills. What’s more, lawmakers must pass a final version of the annual Pentagon policy bill, several federal agency authorizations, including that of the Federal Aviation Administration as the travel-heavy holiday season approaches and other key measures.

Moves like McHenry took Tuesday night to evict former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and former Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer from their Capitol hideaway offices might cause GOP members to fist bump, but such political sugar highs fade fast. And the chamber may not be able to act on any legislation with a government shutdown threat looming in mid-November with McHenry, temporarily in the speaker’s chair. That likely requires an elected speaker.

“It would seem the successful speaker candidate must negotiate realistic … continuing resolution deliverables with his own caucus as part of the agreement to become speaker. House Republicans will lose in the final budget negotiations,” Jolly predicted. “It’s a certainty. Kevin tried to put lipstick on the debt deal and the most recent CR, but they were Republican losses and conservatives know it.”

The reason why is there’s another chamber in Congress controlled by the other party, one very familiar with individual members’ ability to gum up the works.

“There’s no path to a pure appropriations victory for a House GOP forced to work with a Democratic Senate, suspicious Republican senators and a Democratic president,” he added. “So which speaker candidate can sell losing the upcoming appropriations battle as a way to win the speakership? Perhaps it’s impossible, but it could cement their tenure early — or otherwise lead to a short and rocky one.”

Some House Republicans are betting on rocky.

“I’m skeptical right now about where the hell we are as a party and where this governing majority is going to go,” Womack said after presiding over Tuesday’s historic floor session. “The clock is ticking on us — if it hadn’t already gone off — on the narrative for 2024.”

Another onetime Republican lawmaker, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, on Wednesday suggested even if there is a GOP dream candidate out there able to cool the steaming soup that is the party’s House conference, that might not be enough to prevent it from boiling over.

“It’s not just a problem with leadership,” he told reporters at the Capitol. “It’s more a problem with the followers.”

Ellyn Ferguson, Mary Ellen McIntire and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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