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There’s still no speaker of the U.S. House. Could Patrick McHenry be the solution?


There’s still no speaker of the U.S. House. Could Patrick McHenry be the solution?

Oct 12, 2023 | 6:47 pm ET
By Jennifer Shutt Ariana Figueroa Ashley Murray
There’s still no speaker of the U.S. House. Could Patrick McHenry be the solution?
U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., arrives to a House Republican Conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 12, 2023 in Washington, DC. The House Republicans continue to debate their pick for speaker after their initial candidate, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., appeared to lack the majority of the needed votes on the floor (Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON — Louisiana Republican Rep. Steve Scalise stepped into a closed-door meeting at the U.S. Capitol Thursday to negotiate with more than a dozen holdout Republicans in his quest to become the next speaker of the House, though dissent only seemed to grow following the three-hour session.

On Thursday night, Scalise announced he was dropping out of the race.

No vote on the House floor for a speaker had been scheduled as of Thursday night, with the weekend looming. Both the House and Senate are scheduled to be in session next week.

As Scalise’s support eroded, a push began among some in the House GOP to give Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry of North Carolina more legislative authority, especially with the White House preparing to send Congress a supplemental funding request to help Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and U.S. border security.

Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack told reporters he believes the chamber should try to empower McHenry to do more on the floor than he has so far, though he acknowledged there isn’t much precedent.

“If we can, because I think that’s where we are right now in terms of our ability to advance a candidate to become the 56th speaker,” Womack said, adding that he didn’t “see the light at the end of that tunnel.”

Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who was ousted on Oct. 3, handpicked McHenry for the role of speaker pro tem, created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to ensure continuity of government. But this is the first time since the House has used a speaker pro tem in this way.

A U.S. House procedure expert said during an interview with States Newsroom on Thursday that while the role of speaker pro tem was created following the 2001 attacks, it was done so against the constitutional backdrop that the House elects its speakers.

“But it uses those broad terms of ‘necessary and appropriate’ to give the flexibility to that person in the event of an unforeseeable catastrophic event,” said the expert, who spoke on background with States Newsroom to discuss the authorities of the speaker pro tem.

Before the role of speaker pro tem was created, the House Clerk would have stepped into the role in the event of a vacancy, but the expert said “that was something that was not viewed favorably” by the task force that looked at continuity of Congress issues following 9/11.

The rule — which says the speaker pro tem “may exercise such authorities of the Office of the Speaker as may be necessary and appropriate to that end” — is “purposely vague,” the expert said.

“So it gives a little flexibility, but within that tight window of we must do the election, the election is paramount,” the expert said. “What you must remember is that the constitutional imperative is that the House chooses its speaker, not the former speaker chooses its speaker.”

The expert said that the House could vote to give McHenry, or any other member, the authority to bring up resolutions and bills and run the chamber if members elected that person the speaker pro tem for a set amount of time, or until the House elects a speaker.

But it would be a “very bad idea” for McHenry or any other non-elected speaker pro tem to try to exercise broader authority over the House, the expert said.

“He currently is the person holding the gavel and making decisions, but I would expect there would be multiple challenges,” the expert said.

‘Swamp concern’

Texas Rep. Chip Roy said whether the House would vote to give McHenry more authority is “palace intrigue” and a “swamp concern.”

“If something happens, we can act and that’s just the bottom line. And you can temporarily empower the speaker pro tem, you can do anything with a majoritarian body,” Roy said. “My point is the high-stakes drama that is trying to be pushed out there about ‘Oh my gosh, there’s world events going on, so therefore, just pick any pilot for the plane.’ That’s not a good model.”

“So we need to figure out what we need to do. Let’s pick the right speaker. Let’s unite and move forward,” Roy said.

Roy, who unsuccessfully tried to change House GOP rules this week to prevent a speaker nominee from going to the floor without 217 votes, said he wants the party’s debate to stay private for now.

“I’m happy to keep having a conversation behind closed doors — not like that’s some sort of nefarious thing — but as a Republican Conference, like we’re doing. And figure it out.”

Roy was one of the holdout far-right conservatives who pressed McCarthy into a handshake, backroom deal in January in order to secure the votes to become speaker.

Some want a public debate

Other House Republicans, however, are calling to move the debate to the floor, as violence continues in the Middle East following last weekend’s attack on Israel by Hamas and Israel retaliates, and as Ukraine continues to resist the Russian invasion.

The lawmakers are also faced with a fast approaching Nov. 17 deadline to renew government funding.

House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul has grown impatient and is calling for a floor vote, even though Scalise doesn’t have the support to win.

“At the end of the day, we elected the speaker designee and you know, we may just have to bring it to the floor and have another episode like we had with McCarthy,” he said.

It took McCarthy 15 rounds of voting to become speaker in January.

“One of the biggest threats I’ve seen in that room is we can’t unify as a conference and put the speaker in the chair,” McCaul said.

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said neither Scalise or his opponent in the race for speaker, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, could get to 217 on the floor at the moment, though she called on leaders to begin that process immediately.

“It’s a waste of time, continuing to go in there, behind closed doors. We are elected by the people, we represent the people, we need to be on the House floor and we can fight this out on the House floor,” Greene said.

Scalise’s blood cancer diagnosis is part of the reason Greene said she supports Jordan.

“When you’re in a tight game and there’s a lot of pressure happening, you don’t put an injured player or a sick player on the field,” Greene said. “That is not the right thing to do for that player. And it’s not the right thing to do for the team.”

Scalise’s doctors have given him approval to return to work inside the Capitol and told the lawmaker he’s doing phenomenally well, according to comments from Scalise, who has said he’s ready to take on the role of speaker.

Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma pushed back the notion that Scalise should not run for speaker because he is undergoing cancer treatments.

“The sciences of battling cancer have advanced dramatically in the last 20 years, I am confident that he can physically handle it,” Lucas said.

Florida Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart said the process shows “democracy in action,” but added that it’s important to get a speaker elected quickly given all of the world events.

“Every day that we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing, is a day that’s a green light to the administration — to the chaos of the administration, to the weakness of the administration,” Díaz-Balart said. “So, obviously, my preference is to do it as soon as possible.”

Little change in positions

Tennessee Rep. Andy Ogles said following the three-hour-long meeting Thursday afternoon that no members who oppose Scalise have changed their positions.

“We should have started at eight o’clock this morning, we should stay until two in the morning. But instead we’re having this ‘Kumbaya’ session that’s not productive,” he said. “We need to start casting votes.”

South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson said the situation at the Southern border and the war in Israel were good reasons for House Republicans to “get our act together.”

“I think all members, myself included, need to quit looking for excuses not to vote for somebody and just realize that in a majoritarian institution, which the Republican Conference is, we got to settle on somebody, and then we got to go get them elected speaker,” Johnson said.

Florida Rep. Byron Donalds said he believes House Republican “members have to just come to a consensus agreement.”

Donalds deferred to McHenry, when asked when the House would schedule a vote to elect a speaker.

Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana said if Scalise is the nominee on the floor and the vote goes to multiple ballots she will vote for him in the first round. After that, she will reassess, she said.

Tennessee’s Rep. Tim Burchett, one of the eight members who voted to oust McCarthy, told reporters he felt optimistic about the conference reaching an agreement.

“We’ll get there,” Burchett, a Scalise supporter, said.

“I think (Scalise) is working very hard toward that, and I’ve talked to several people this morning that have had conversions, not toward Christianity, toward Scalise,” Burchett said.

Rep. John Rutherford of Florida joined several of his other Republican colleagues in calling for the speaker vote to move to the floor.

“As long as we can hide out behind closed doors in the anonymity of a closed room, nobody’s gonna be held accountable so nobody’s going to change their mind,” Rutherford said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday, when asked about the speaker’s race, that it was a process for House Republicans to figure out themselves, noting President Joe Biden had no role.

“It is their process,” Jean-Pierre said of House Republicans. “What we’re seeing is certainly shambolic chaos that we’re seeing over there on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, and they need to get their act together. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done on behalf of the American people.”

Jacob Fischler and Samantha Dietel contributed to this report.