As House Republicans sink deeper into an unprecedented mess of their own making, their biggest problem isn’t that they are unable to agree.
It’s that they can’t even agree on not agreeing.
On Thursday, the House’s 16th day without an elected speaker, the GOP conference was on the brink of admitting their intractable differences and considering a temporary power structure to allow them to work out their issues while resuming legislative business.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) looked like he was on the verge of making a strategic—albeit temporary—retreat from the speakership. He privately signaled he would endorse a plan to give the speaker pro tempore, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), some expanded powers to consider urgent legislation while he soldiered on as the “speaker-designee” and worked on the 20-some-odd GOP holdouts.
But the idea of “caretaker Speaker McHenry” was such a fragile idea that even saying it out loud was too much. As Republicans discussed the proposal during a spirited three-hour conference meeting—one that members described as painful or compared to serious dental work—the proposal disintegrated.
Jordan loyalists, and conservatives more broadly, revolted at the notion that they would work with Democrats to resume the House’s business, and they waved pocket Constitutions in the air as they argued that a temporary speaker was an unconstitutional step toward a “highly dangerous coalition government,” as Rep. Bob Good (R-VA) put it.
After members cursed at each other and testified about receiving death threats for voting against Jordan, the speaker candidate emerged to say he would do what he’d decided against just hours before: proceed to a House floor vote again, at some point, presumably after flipping the lawmakers who now oppose him.
It’s been clear to everyone—perhaps except for Jordan—that he does not have the votes to become speaker. And the more he presses, the farther away he seems to get from the gavel. According to Punchbowl News, a dozen Jordan holdouts who met with him in a private meeting Thursday evening emerged even more unwilling to support him.
And still, Jordan’s team said they would move ahead with a Friday morning vote, where he is expected to have his worst showing yet, according to his own allies.
Jordan could quickly pivot on that plan. Late Thursday night, when Jordan announced he was holding an 8 a.m. press conference, the speculation around Capitol Hill instantly became that Jordan was, finally, dropping out of the race.
Whatever Jordan chooses to do, many GOP lawmakers have been left dazed, frustrated, and completely at a loss for where they go next, with a party seemingly undone by the eight GOP lawmakers who voted to remove McCarthy from the Speaker’s office on Oct. 3.
“We took our leader out,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND). “We took our second in command out. We took our grassroots folk hero out, or at least we're in the process of doing that. Eventually, we're going to run into an attrition problem that’s unsustainable.”
It may not look like a shock that Republicans remain in chaos, given the heady mix of pressures that have boiled over in the last two weeks. For years, vicious personal rivalries have simmered in the House GOP ranks: between Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and McCarthy, between McCarthy and Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), and between Jordan’s faction of Freedom Caucus hardliners and everyone else.
While interpersonal beef is nothing new in Congress, the incentive structure of the Trump-era congressional GOP threatens to turn this crisis into a long and painful slog.
Increasingly beholden to an extreme party base, influenced by media outlets and online influencers who thrive on inflaming tension and demonizing enemies, today’s GOP lawmakers are more likely to lose their seats for compromising with liberals or centrists than for failing to govern.
One of the most revealing moments of the speaker drama came Tuesday, when Democrats noted that, in his nearly 17-year tenure in Congress, Jordan has never had a bill signed into law. But what was meant as a stunning diss actually sounded like a selling point to some extremist Republicans; Gaetz and fellow firebrand Lauren Boebert (R-CO) applauded the Democratic talking point, taking Jordan’s lack of legislative success as proof that he’s uncorrupted by the Washington Swamp.
But Jordan’s inability to achieve more than pyrrhic victories has caught up to him in the brutal math of a speaker election. Everything Jordan does seems to be the wrong move, exacerbating his problems. At least, that’s what his detractors would like people to think.
One particularly strong narrative that has set in is that Jordan has been perpetuating strong-arm tactics to pressure his colleagues. Several Republicans who voted against Jordan have testified that the outside campaign orchestrated by his right-wing media allies has resulted in personal death threats. Even members’ families are being targeted; according to Politico, Rep. Don Bacon’s wife began receiving threats to her personal phone.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) told NBC News that his landlord is evicting him from his Colorado office as a protest of the lawmaker’s opposition to a Jordan speakership.
While Jordan continues to play whack-a-mole with these outside groups posting the phone numbers of his detractors—on Thursday night, a Jordan spokesman clarified that Jordan was “absolutely not” supporting a rally at the district offices of one of his holdouts—Republicans are just taking it as a sign that Jordan has no control over the conservative outrage machine he helped build. In their thinking, he either secretly approves of the pressure campaign, or doesn’t have the power to stop it.
Either way, the House GOP seems irrevocably poisoned.
“You have the Kevin McCarthy people who are upset that Kevin was taken out when he was a duly elected speaker by the majority—97 percent supported him,” Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) said Thursday. “And you have the Scalise people upset because they feel like he was pushed to withdraw without getting a floor vote. And he was the one who got the most votes when it was just him and Jim!”
One flashpoint in the mess is that, even if Jordan steps aside, he doesn’t intend to step down. He wants to retain his status as the internal conference’s selection as speaker—even though Scalise beat him outright.
When Scalise realized he didn’t have the votes, he endorsed Jordan. When Jordan realized he didn’t have the votes, he decided to just keep voting, holding the whole process hostage.
“I can’t help them,” Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), one of the Jordan holdouts, said Thursday night. “They should have grown up with me, my parents would never accept this type of behavior.”
Kelly has been particularly peeved over the way Scalise was shelved because some conservatives made it clear they would never vote for him. And now, with Jordan’s holdouts doing the same thing, the Judiciary Chairman refuses to let it go.
“When we decide that the personality is more important than the process, then we no longer have integrity,” Kelly said.
The poetic justice of Jordan supporters insisting the conference has to come together for their man—only for Jordan to fall on his face—hasn’t been lost on members.
Freshman Rep. Mike Collins (R-GA), who claims that he has taken over his Twitter while his communications director is on vacation, has increasingly gotten feisty online. When Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry (R-PA) tweeted Wednesday that Jordan was likely to have fewer votes on the second ballot than on the first, but that supporters just needed to stay strong and keep praying, Collins trolled Perry.
The cleanest way out of this mess for Republicans continues to be giving McHenry increased power as the temporary speaker. In fact, that result would actually solve a lot of other problems for Republicans.
Whether Gaetz made his motion to vacate in October after McCarthy put a temporary government funding bill on the floor, or whether he waited for the GOP’s appropriations strategy to fail later, McCarthy was always going to have a problem.
Republicans have bought into a false promise that, if they just try really hard, the Democratic Senate and the Democratic president would accept their spending bills—written at numbers below the agreement that Joe Biden and McCarthy reached earlier this year—just because.
The truth is, House Republicans were set up to fail—either immediately or after a prolonged government shutdown that they would take the blame for. Throw in the GOP’s angst over sending military aid to Ukraine, coupled with the desire among all Democrats and a good chunk of Republicans to help Ukraine, and McCarthy’s speakership has looked doomed for some time.
It would be helpful, then, to have a temporary speaker who could clear the deck for the next person—someone who would do the unpopular things that have to be done for the political good of Republicans despite conservative objections.
Conservatives already seem to sense that is the inevitable result of a temporary Speaker McHenry, which is why they’re so against it. Ironically, their refusal to just give McHenry expanded powers, as interpreted in loosely defined House rules in which McHenry may already have these powers, has strengthened the hand of Democrats in these upcoming negotiations—further adding to conservative opposition.
A source familiar with Jordan’s operation told The Daily Beast Thursday that Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal’s recent comments on Democrats and Republicans coming together and forging a bipartisan path had a chilling effect on the idea of a McHenry speakership.
This source said Jayapal’s comments echoed private concerns that Democrats just wanted to elevate McHenry in order to stop a Jordan speakership. “The visceral impact on the majority of the Republican conference is hard to overstate,” this source said.
But with no Republican able to get the requisite votes, the McHenry path may still be the GOP’s ultimate option.
Or Republicans can just keep voting on Jordan. The third vote on his speakership may finally happen on Friday morning.
It will fail. His aides indicated late Thursday night that they would like to keep members in over the weekend and hold more votes on his speakership. Or Republicans could go offsite, lock themselves in a room, and not leave until they have a speaker.
“It sounds silly, but let’s go to Gettysburg or something,” Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) told Axios on Wednesday.
Some members, like Malliotakis, just believe it’s time to start over from scratch.
“Let people vote for their top three or top one, however you want to do it, and then figure out who comes on top,” she said. “We have to have an agreement among the team that we will support whoever comes out of that process.”
Consistent Jordan holdout Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-FL) said the way to break out of the stalemate is to “find the right person.” He believes a Republican who can get the elusive 217 votes exists. But he said he doesn’t have picks in mind. Even if he did, he wouldn’t name them.
“I don’t want to poison them,” Gimenez said.
At this point, it’s clear to some Republicans that something has to give.
“We are at a standstill,” said Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-VA), a first-year lawmaker who is continuing to support McCarthy. “It’s like if we’re digging a hole and you keep hitting rock, like, dig in a different place. You know, we can’t keep doing what we've been doing.”