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Washington and Congress have their own, often impenetrable, languages. So it may be somewhat confusing to assess what it means that the office of the speaker of the House of Representatives is vacant.
Why, as a result, has Nancy Pelosi, who hasn’t been speaker since January, been kicked out of her office in the Capitol building?
What does it mean for Americans that one chamber of Congress is in a state of paralysis?
What’s below, compiled from CNN’s comprehensive coverage of the situation on Capitol Hill, is an attempt to answer these and other questions about the chaos. For the latest, check CNN’s Live Updates.
The House is without a speaker, the person who, according to the Constitution, is required to be its leader. That means the chamber is essentially paralyzed until it can settle on a new speaker.
For now, a placeholder, Rep. Patrick McHenry, is what’s referred to as “speaker pro tempore,” which means the North Carolina Republican can essentially keep the lights on but has no power to move legislation through the House.
That depends on a few things, including how long the House is frozen, but also who takes over as the next speaker and what kind of negotiating they will do with Democrats who control the Senate and the White House.
For as long as the House is trying to find a new speaker, it’s unable to do much of anything else.
Its immediate list includes:
- Keep the government open. Temporary funding runs out on November 17 and a government shutdown, if one occurs, could affect every American. The next speaker will have to negotiate with the Senate and the White House to agree on spending that both Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate can stomach.
- Decide what to do abut Ukraine. There is a growing rift over additional aid to help Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion. Ukraine is burning through ammunition at a fast pace and the US and other countries are becoming slower to resupply. The White House wants $24 billion in additional Ukraine funding, but read more on that from CNN’s Tim Lister.
The House adopted a package of organizing rules back in January, which means some effects of this paralysis are muted. Lawmakers’ offices can continue to function, helping constituents with passports and other services. But if there is a national, regional or local emergency, Congress will be unable to respond for the time being. And any time it would have spent on legislation is now being spent on this internal Republican fight.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy had been House speaker since January, when he won the gavel after 15 rounds of balloting. He was ousted on October 3 after a small minority of his narrow majority – just eight Republicans – voted to remove him.
As part of a series of deals with hardliners to win the speaker’s gavel in the first place, McCarthy agreed that just one member would be required to call for a vote to “vacate” him from office at any time. This week, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz became that member.
Most of the eight came from the ultra conservative Freedom Caucus. They were angry that McCarthy cut a deal with Democrats to avert a partial government shutdown and fund the government temporarily for 45 days. They were also frustrated at the terms of a deal he cut with President Joe Biden to raise the nation’s debt limit earlier this year. This wing of the GOP is absolutist in its view of federal spending and some have even expressed willingness to entertain a default or shutdown to get what they want.
Many House Republicans who share some of these ideological views, however, continued to support McCarthy. Some of the people who voted to oust him, led by Gaetz, also had more personal conflicts with McCarthy, accusing him of not keeping his word.
It’s unprecedented for a speaker to be kicked out of their position in the middle of a congressional session. The type of House chaos in which parties could not agree on a speaker was more common before the Civil War.
A majority of members of Congress – 218 if everyone is present and voting – selects the speaker. But lawmakers traditionally separate by party when they choose their speaker. If all Democrats vote for the Democratic leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, that means Republicans must find 218 votes from their conference for whomever they put up.
Their majority, which they won in last year’s midterms, is extremely small. Only four Republicans can break with the pack in order for a GOP speaker to be seated. When McCarthy was booted from the speaker’s office, he lost just eight Republicans of his 221-member conference.
Some did consider rescuing the California Republican. But the party also has a collective political interest in watching Republicans squirm. And McCarthy, while a genial guy, was also extremely partisan. While he cut deals to keep the government open and raise the debt ceiling, he also recently initiated an official impeachment inquiry against Biden. And he refused to put some bills that had widespread bipartisan support – such as a defense authorization bill – on the House floor without partisan additions.
So many Democrats felt like they didn’t owe him anything, even if a future GOP speaker could be more conservative than McCarthy.
It’s easy to marvel at how Republicans allowed this to happen and to criticize Democrats for choosing the more partisan route, but both things were a long time coming.
At least two. McHenry booted Pelosi and former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Marlyand out of offices they kept in the Capitol building. McCarthy was behind that move, CNN later reported.
Sources close to Pelosi and Hoyer say it was retaliation for Democrats siding against McCarthy in voting to vacate the speaker’s chair. (McCarthy and McHenry’s did not respond to requests for comment.)
CNN political commentator Scott Jennings pointed to polling from CNN over the summer in which Americans said they trust Republicans in Congress (54%) over Biden (45%) to deal with the major issues facing the country.
But instead of talking about those issues, Republicans are squabbling among themselves.
“I think the Republicans are throwing out probably the most popular Republican leader in the Capitol, and that’s crazy,” Jennings said. “The last thing he did was keep the government open in a bipartisan fashion. I would submit that the troops probably felt that was important because now they will keep getting paid. So, he did the responsible thing. And now he’s out on his a** over it.”
Former President Donald Trump and Trumpism are worth noting. McCarthy won the speakership with backing from Trump. He lost it after Trump pushed for a shutdown that McCarthy worked to avoid (and Trump also spent the week in court in New York).
CNN’s Stephen Collinson put it this way: “McCarthy’s short speakership underscored how the Republican Party in the age of Donald Trump has turned into one of the great forces of instability in American life, and potentially the world.”
With great care! McCarthy made concessions to the right wing in order to get the speaker’s job, and it took many rounds of voting to reach a majority, even though he did not face organized opposition.
Now, with multiple announced GOP candidates and other considering a run, it’s not at all clear how one person will emerge to unify the party or what they’ll have to promise.
There are a few who are actively looking for support and some others who are doing it more quietly.
Steve Scalise – The Louisiana Republican, who is the House majority leader and had been McCarthy’s No. 2, is running.
Diagnosed with multiple myeloma earlier this year, Scalise told reporters in September that in response to treatment, his cancer “has dropped dramatically.” In 2017, he was shot at a Republican congressional baseball game practice by a gunman who defined himself publicly by his hatred of conservatives.
He faced backlash in 2014 for a speech he gave in 2002 to a White supremacist group, although he later apologized and said he regretted it.
Jim Jordan – The Ohio Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee is running. He’s also a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, although he became a key McCarthy ally. Known for rarely wearing a jacket and being a loud and frequent critic of Democrats, he was a vocal defender of Trump during his two impeachment proceedings.
Kevin Hern – The Oklahoma Republican, who chairs a conservative group of lawmakers called the Republican Study Committee, is considering a run for leadership. His committee wields a large bloc of GOP members.
Patrick McHenry – The North Carolina Republican, who was first elected to Congress at age 29, has been a McCarthy ally. Now he’s the interim speaker. A source close to McHenry told CNN that the congressman sees his role right now as a caretaker focused on getting the conference through another speaker’s race.