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It's been 14 days without a speaker. Here's what needs to happen in the House

2023-10-17 18:22
It's been 14 days since eight Republicans were able to bounce former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy from the top position in Congress and hit pause on all legislative business on Capitol Hill.
It's been 14 days without a speaker. Here's what needs to happen in the House

It's been 14 days since eight Republicans were able to bounce former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy from the top position in Congress and hit pause on all legislative business on Capitol Hill.

Having moved on from McCarthy and his No. 2, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, lawmakers are expected to vote Tuesday on whether to elevate their third choice, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, whom one Republican former speaker once labeled as among a group of "political terrorists" for the way he thought they worked to tear apart Washington. That's assuming Jordan can perform the magic trick of uniting nearly every Republican behind him.

Here's a look at what we know and what we can expect:

Why does it matter that there's no speaker?

The House is essentially paralyzed until someone is chosen to preside over it. A placeholder, Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, has the power to bring the chamber to order. But no legislation can pass until this is resolved. No government funding bills. No policy bills. To the extent that Congress is meant to address problems with legislation, that is not happening.

What legislation needs to pass and when?

First and foremost, the government essentially runs out of money in a month, on November 17. A speaker will need to be involved in negotiations with the White House and the Senate, both of which are controlled by Democrats. There is momentum for a bill to give further aid to Israel after it was attacked by Hamas this month. And Ukraine is said to be running out of munitions, although support has dropped in Congress for continued aid to Kyiv.

What happened to the last speaker?

McCarthy was one of the shortest-serving speakers in US history. In order to get the job in January, he agreed to give any single Republican member the power to call for a vote to "vacate" him from the top spot. That was his undoing. Far-right members were frustrated that McCarthy relied on Democrats to pass a short-term spending bill and avoid a government shutdown late last month.

McCarthy's replacement will now have a month to tackle the larger problem of a yearlong spending bill before the government again faces the prospect of a funding lapse.

Does Jordan have momentum?

Jordan, the chairman of the House Judiciary, was chosen Friday as the Republican nominee to be speaker ahead of a planned floor vote Tuesday. He got the support of a majority of Republicans in a secret ballot vote, but 55 Republicans voted against him. He can only afford to lose four GOP votes on the floor, assuming everyone votes.

In the intervening days, Jordan has announced progress convincing some of the moderate holdouts to support him.

Why is Jordan controversial?

A founder of the far-right Freedom Caucus, Jordan made his name as somewhat of a flamethrower on Capitol Hill. A 2020 election skeptic, Jordan was among former President Donald Trump's most vocal defenders in Congress, fealty Trump rewarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in his final days in office.

That such a conservative lawmaker would be elevated to the top spot in the House speaks volumes about how the GOP has evolved in the age of Trump. Jordan earned Trump's endorsement earlier this month when it was a two-way race with Scalise. It could help him finally become speaker, but only because Scalise dropped out of the running.

Jordan has also faced scrutiny over his position as assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University at the time that a team doctor, Richard Strauss, was sexually abusing male students. Some of the abused have publicly argued Jordan heard and ignored their complaints in the 1990s. The Ohio Republican has vehemently denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the abuse. CNN reported on the issue in 2020.

Who once said Jordan was one of the "political terrorists"?

Jordan is among the conservative members whom one former speaker, retired Rep. John Boehner, described as "political terrorists" in his memoir.

"I just never saw a guy who spent more time tearing things apart -- never building anything, never putting anything together," Boehner told CBS News of Jordan in 2021.

Jordan told CNN's Manu Raju he can unite the party.

"I think we are a conservative-center-right party. I think I'm the guy who can help unite that. My politics are entirely consistent with where conservatives and Republicans are across the country," he said.

Jordan has used his position as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to begin investigations into special counsel Jack Smith and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who are both prosecuting Trump.

What is the math?

There are 221 Republicans and 212 Democrats in the House. Subtracting two vacant seats from the normal total of 435 members means 217 is the current threshold for a majority. It is possible that Republican members who oppose Jordan could vote "present," thus further lowering the threshold. Up to eight Republicans could vote "present," bringing the total for a majority down to 213. But every other Republican would need to vote for the same person in that case. Democrats are unified behind their leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

What happens if no candidate gets a majority?

They vote again. And again. And again, until either one candidate gets a majority or there is a recess. If this sounds familiar that's because it took McCarthy 15 rounds of voting and multiple days to build a majority of Republicans in January.

What happens during the vote?

The clerk of the House will gavel in the chamber and call a quorum. Democrats will place Jeffries' name into nomination, and Republicans will nominate Jordan.

Then the clerk will call the roll and each member will state the name of the person whom they are voting for. If no one amasses a majority of votes cast, it goes to a second ballot.

Are members required to vote for either Jeffries or Jordan?

There's no rule that the speaker is a House member. Members can vote for anyone, and they can protest by skipping the vote or voting "present." The vast majority will vote for their party's leader.

Is there an alternative to Jordan for Republicans?

Not at the moment, but it's important to note that Jordan is far from their first choice. All but eight Republicans had backed keeping McCarthy, but because Republicans' majority is so small, he lost his job.

Then, Republicans nominated Scalise, the House majority leader. But Scalise was far from a universal choice, and rather than work to change the minds of his doubters by horse-trading for their votes, the Louisiana Republican withdrew his name from contention.

Anyone will face a difficult task in unifying a party that includes far-right members such as Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who engineered McCarthy's ouster, as well as 18 members who represent districts that would have voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 under redrawn lines.

Will Republicans revisit the "motion to vacate" rule?

It was McCarthy's decision to give any Republican the power to call for a vote to remove the speaker at any time. There are voices in both parties who want to see that power controlled. A majority could change the rules Republicans adopted in January. Jordan has not taken an official position but made clear the first order of business is selecting a speaker. They can revisit whether a speaker should be removed at a later date.

It's been 100 years

In the 200-plus years since the first two-year Congress met in 1789, such floor fights have occurred just 15 times, according to the House historian.

All but two of those multi-ballot speaker elections took place before the Civil War as the two-party system was evolving. Back then, floor fights were routine.

Until it took McCarthy 15 ballots in January, a floor fight had taken place only once since the Civil War, exactly 100 years ago, when it took nine ballots for Rep. Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts to be elected speaker in 1923.

The epic record for a floor fight

In 1855 and 1856, it took 133 separate votes for Rep. Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts to be elected, again by a plurality and not a majority.

The process stretched over more than a month and included a sort of inquisition on the House floor of the three contenders, who answered questions about their view of the expansion of slavery. Read more from the House historian's website.

It's also interesting to read about Banks; his official House biography notes he was elected to office as a Republican, an independent, a member of the America Party and as a Democrat.