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GOP speakers have long indulged party’s anti-government wing. Now what?

House Republicans' internal fight is a 'self-inflicted problem,' strategist says

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., leaves a House Republicans caucus meeting Monday evening.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., leaves a House Republicans caucus meeting Monday evening. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — House conservatives messed around and found out. Their feud with an ousted speaker is suddenly more than a list of grievances — it could hinder a close U.S. ally in a surprise war.

Moderate GOP members and Congress watchers warned that ousting Rep. Kevin McCarthy from the speakership would leave the House paralyzed. For months, the California Republican went along with many demands of that faction, repeatedly trying to placate members who have made clear they view the government itself as at the core of many problems.

The group’s gripes manifested in their demands for federal spending cuts, something the new speaker could be confronted with immediately after taking the gavel. Now expecting those members to stand down on giving billions of dollars to Israel, Ukraine and possibly Taiwan could be a tough ask.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday said due to the Israeli-Hamas conflict he would soon formally ask Congress to take “urgent action to fund the national security requirements of our critical partners.” It is not yet clear what — if anything — the House might take up. Complicating that question is whether the next speaker is worried the same anti-government faction that ousted McCarthy might come for his job if the aid bill is too large, gets too many Democratic votes or otherwise irritates their anti-spending, anti-bureaucracy instincts. Former GOP Speakers John A. Boehner of Ohio and Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin worried about such things as well when they held the gavel.

The anti-McCarthy bloc found out over the weekend why alarm bells were being rung last week, when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel that plunged the staunch American ally into a war with its nemesis — and brought pleas for more U.S. military assistance.

Only the speaker-less House is unable to originate the kind of emergency aid legislation that would be required to meaningfully help replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, soldiers’ ammunition and other weapons Israeli officials say will be needed for a surprise conflict they say will not be short.

Heading into a closed debate before the GOP conference Tuesday evening, the speaker’s competition was a two-horse race between Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. But when McCarthy on Monday would not rule out trying to regain his gavel, there were new questions about whether any of the declared candidates can secure the 217 votes needed on the floor to become the 56th speaker.

The conservative rebels claimed their gripes with McCarthy were about mistrust and federal spending levels. They are now also about a deadly conflict that is rooted in religion, retaliation and regional rivalries. Their opposition to just about anything the former speaker wanted to do as speaker is now inextricably linked to a conflict that could spin out of control and send security and economic waves across the globe.

The House GOP “civil war,” as Democrats like Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York refer to it, has quickly become more than a chapter in U.S. history — it could become a national and global security issue, should it drag into next week or beyond.

With the Senate on a weeklong recess, House Republicans have time to install a new speaker and get the chamber working again. If they can rally around one candidate this week, the floor would be functioning in time to send a possible Israeli aid package across the Capitol.

GOP strategist Brian Seitchik on Tuesday called the paralyzed House a “self-inflicted problem” that “could develop into a problem at the ballot box next year.” But he also stressed Election Day is 391 days away and voters have relatively short memories.

“Republicans should be taking advantage of what is an excellent opportunity to contrast the failures of the Biden administration to a House that’s getting things done. Without a duly elected speaker in place, we are unable to draw that contrast. If a speaker is installed in the next week to 10 days, I would argue it’s a footnote and a forgotten matter by next year. But if drags on and on, it’ll hurt Republicans and benefit Joe Biden.”

The Israel aid is being discussed as possibly being combined with funding for Ukraine that a bipartisan Senate group had been trying to get into a short-term spending bill before McCarthy nixed it in his final attempt to placate his critics. Some Republicans, especially the most conservative among them, in the House and Senate oppose sending more military aid to Ukraine. They are not in a mood to spend more taxpayer money overseas.

The member who triggered the vote to oust McCarthy, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., did not sound as though he thought more aid was needed for Israel when asked Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“There was no need in Israel that we’re not going to be able to meet based on the funding that we’ve already approved for Israel. And the reason we have this multibillion-dollar commitment each and every year to Israel is because we want Israel to have a qualitative military edge over everyone in the region,” Gaetz said, never mentioning a new aid package.

“They have that edge,” he added. “But there is no ask from Israel that we are unable to meet because it’s going to take us a few days to pick a new speaker.”

He notably used the past tense, focusing on aid packages Congress already has passed.

‘Strong resolution’

Scalise on Tuesday also notably did not vow to pass a new package for Israel, telling Fox News once the gavel has been passed the chamber would quickly “have a strong resolution and support of Israel ready to go.”

“We need to get back on track to express that strong support for Israel, but also to move to make sure they have everything they need to defend themselves,” the majority leader added. “This war’s ongoing.”

Scalise is likely correct that there is widespread “resolve” in the chamber to pass an Israel-support resolution. But those measures do not allocate money or authorize the transfer of combat equipment. When pressed, Scalise merely said lawmakers and administration officials are “having those conversations” when pressed about an aid bill. He then pivoted back to calling for a speedy end to the speaker race.

The ouster of McCarthy and ongoing speaker fight are merely the latest chapters in the drama that has characterized the House GOP conference during the 118th Congress. There have been threats and name-calling, the booting of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia from the conservative Freedom Caucus, an official impeachment hearing into the business dealings of Biden and his son, open flirtation with a federal debt default and a government shutdown threat.

“The GOP House majority was already shaky before Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s abrupt demise. The party has to defend 18 seats in districts which President Biden won in 2020,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said Tuesday. “Now House Republicans are in freefall and need to pull out of this tailspin soon if they hope to maintain control of the House. The Republican problems in the House may spill over and damage the party’s hopes of controlling the White House and Senate in 2024.”

But if voters are turned off by the theatrics, that has yet to show up in some polls.

In fact, voters expressed a preference for Republicans on several generic ballot polls conducted in recent weeks. A YouGov-Economist survey gave Democrats a slight edge, 44 percent to 43 percent, over Republicans. But in an Echelon Insights poll conducted late last month, more voters said they prefer Republicans to control Congress, 48 percent to Democrats’ 44 percent.

And a pair of polls conducted in recent weeks by McLaughlin & Associates gave the nod to Republicans by 7 percentage points and 6 percentage points, respectively. Inside Elections rates more House seats as “solid” for Republicans than Democrats, 182 to 171. (Both parties have about the same number — 33 now-GOP seats and 35 Democratic — of races that are considered in play, and one state, North Carolina, still is not rated because of expected redistricting.)

“After the McCarthy debacle, it’s easier for the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, and the president to argue that GOP control adds to the chaos,” Bannon said. “More disruption is the last thing voters want in a world that has become completely unglued.”

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