Pressure to fill House speaker vacancy builds as crisis unfolds in Israel

Oct 8, 2023, 2:01 PM | Updated: Nov 30, 2023, 5:49 pm

us capitol...

Visitors near the US Capitol on October 2. The House speakership drama enters a new week under increased urgency as Israel declared war on October 8. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

(Eric Lee/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

(CNN) — The House speakership drama enters a new week under increased urgency as Israel declared war Sunday following unprecedented surprise attacks by Hamas.

Kevin McCarthy’s historic ouster as speaker leaves the House in uncharted legal territory regarding what it can do under acting Speaker Patrick McHenry. When Congress lawmakers return to Washington, they will be under pressure to elect a new speaker swiftly amid the crisis in Israel, which has prompted calls from within the Republican Party to speed up their timeline given the national security implications of keeping the role vacant.

As the Biden administration looks to provide additional assistance to Israel, officials were unsure Saturday about what could be accomplished without a sitting speaker. While McHenry is serving as speaker pro tempore, he has little power outside of recessing, adjourning or recognizing speaker nominations, and it’s unclear whether he can participate in intelligence briefings on the crisis in Israel.

Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said Sunday that he had conversations with the White House and the National Security Council on Saturday, but he has not yet met with the so-called Gang of Eight – which typically includes the top leaders and heads of the intelligence committees in both parties and both chambers.

“I do anticipate that we’ll have the opportunity to have a secure briefing at some point next week,” Jeffries told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”

Jeffries said it is his understanding that the Biden administration can make some decisions regarding aid to Israel without waiting for Congress and urged the administration to do so, adding that he expects “it will provide whatever assistance it can.”

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul told Bash on Sunday that the president can use $3.3 billion in foreign military financing that is already appropriated.

The Texas Republican also called McCarthy’s ouster “dangerous.”

“I look at the world and all of the threats that are out there and what kind of message are we sending to adversaries when we can’t govern, when we are dysfunctional, when we don’t even have a speaker of the House?” McCaul said on “State of the Union.”

McCarthy on Saturday slammed his Republican colleagues for removing him from office last week, and stressed the impact of a speakerless House on national security. “Why would you ever remove a speaker during a term to raise doubt around the world?” McCarthy asked in a Fox News interview.

McCarthy announced shortly after his ouster that he would not seek the speakership again, making room for House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan to launch their bids for the seat.

Former President Donald Trump has thrown his support behind Jordan. Oklahoma Rep. Kevin Hern announced Saturday that he had decided not to run, saying, “I believe a three-man race for speaker will create even more division and make it harder to elect a speaker.”

House Republicans are scheduled to hold a candidate forum on Tuesday and an internal election on Wednesday.

As Jordan and Scalise vie for their colleagues’ support, Jordan said Sunday that he would lay out his plan to address the government funding deadline to his caucus Tuesday.

“We’ve got to have 218 votes for a Republican speaker, and we’ve got to have 218 votes for how we deal with November 17 when the funding bill for the government comes due. … I will outline that in front of my colleagues on Tuesday when we get together,” he said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.”

Jordan said his first order of business, however, would be to bring a resolution to the floor in support of Israel.

It’s unclear when the speaker floor vote will happen, and the timeline is contingent on whether moderate GOP lawmakers can rally around Scalise or Jordan, who are among the hardliners of the party.

“We have to get a speaker elected this week so we can get things on the floor like replenishing the Iron Dome,” McCaul told Bash on Sunday – referring to Israel’s rocket defense system, which was developed with help from the US. He added that the House should look to pass a resolution condemning Hamas “by unanimous consent whether or not we have a speaker in place because I think we cannot wait. We have to get that message out as soon as possible.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify when Congress returns.

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Pressure to fill House speaker vacancy builds as crisis unfolds in Israel