Three Speakers at Once, yet House Republicans Lack One with Real Power

Photos by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.)

It was tricky enough for Roman Catholics to have two popes over the last decade, with one reigning and issuing edicts that differed from the retired pontiff’s ideology.

House Republicans have found that it’s even harder to have three speakers at once.

Each one has his own core supporters who have turned their already raucous caucus into a den of distrust and score-settling that has left the chamber ungovernable. First, there’s Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), ousted from the speaker’s post more than two weeks ago, who continues to pretend as if he has some powers that come with the position.

Operating from what is technically his former office, McCarthy worked feverishly behind the scenes in the two bids to succeed him. First, he helped sabotage House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), as McCarthy’s closest supporters from moderate circles held back their support, but then he failed to rally enough of those friends into the camp of his conservative ally Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

Refusing to give up, Jordan retains the title speaker-designate and, with it, has the power to call votes in the full House to try to win the gavel. His first vote Tuesday failed as 20 Republicans opposed him – as is custom, all Democrats voted for House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) – and his second vote Wednesday plunged further, with 22 Republicans against him.

Then, a bloc of establishment-friendly Republicans – interested in getting the House to function again during a dangerous time of multiple allies at war – turned to the third GOP speaker of the moment: Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who took over in an acting capacity after McCarthy’s ouster.

His powers are limited to overseeing the election of the new speaker, but they want to give him the full powers of the office for a few months and just let the speaker race sort itself out.

McHenry’s support runs deep among lawmakers who still adhere to the traditional Reagan-Bush orthodoxy that the 47-year-old bow-tie-wearing North Carolinian was raised in, as well as among legions veteran GOP advisers holding influential K Street posts.

But their proposal went down in flames Thursday in basement meeting that ran more than three hours long. Despite Jordan’s support for pausing the election process, his closest supporters fiercely opposed the unprecedented move. Backers of Scalise – who held the speaker-designate title for about 30 hours last week – objected as long as Jordan retained that title, arguing their candidate formally withdrew when he knew he could not win.

Amid the stalemate, McCarthy emerged from the closed-door meeting to declare he had no idea if there would be another vote on Jordan’s candidacy or if Republicans would put the resolution on the floor to try to let McHenry govern the chamber.

“I am no longer speaker. So I’m not making this – I’m not making that determination,” he said, part of a 13-minute news conference at the spot designated for House speaker news conferences.

Republicans are left in a position with plenty of people with big titles and fancy offices that come with beautiful views, none of whom can actually lead the rebellious 221-member caucus.

When Jordan and others explained the Speaker McHenry option, some Republicans blew up because they knew that the only path for that option involved getting some Democratic support, effectively creating a bipartisan coalition that would be anathema to many.

“We don’t deserve the majority,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who is running for the Senate next year, told reporters outside the meeting.

Jordan had spent several days opposed to the McHenry concept for the same reasons that his deeply conservative allies dislike it, but then McCarthy and others nudged Jordan in that direction as an off-ramp.

He would have a couple months to try to repair the deep divisions that his candidacy has caused. After losing to Scalise last Wednesday, Jordan’s closest friends denied the new speaker-designate the support he needed in a public vote that would require backing from 217 of the 221 Republicans.

After Scalise bowed out, Jordan jumped into the race and won the nomination last Friday. This infuriated Scalise’s backers, who vowed to not let Jordan win the speaker’s gavel through what they saw as political treachery.

After their public votes against Jordan on Tuesday and Wednesday, some reported receiving violent threats from far-right activists demanding they vote for Jordan for speaker, prompting those opponents to dig in further against his candidacy.

“One thing I cannot stomach, or support, is a bully,” Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa) said in a statement Wednesday, listing “credible death threats” after her vote.

With his candidacy hanging by a thread, Jordan pleaded with his Republican opposition Thursday to meet in peaceful terms across the street in the Rayburn Office Building.

“I plan to go to the floor and get the votes and win this race,” Jordan said. “But I want to go talk with a few of my colleagues. Particularly, I want to talk with the 20 individuals who voted against me.”

But it wasn’t just Jordan meeting with some of the holdouts. All three quasi-speakers met with some of the group, which included Republicans who only want to vote for McCarthy and some who only want to vote for someone other than Jordan.

No progress was made, and by 5 p.m., Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a Jordan disciple, told reporters that some anti-Jordan Republicans had refused to even take his phone calls.

McHenry, leaving Thursday’s huddle after an hour so he could preside over the House chamber, refused to say if he even wanted more powers to do a job that he previously said he’s not interested in holding.

A veteran of past GOP leadership teams, McHenry abandoned that path a few years ago to take the reins of the House Financial Services Committee for a term that ends next year, leading some to speculate he may retire from Congress in early 2025.

All he would acknowledge was the chaos inside the room. “We’re having an active and vigorous conversation,” McHenry told reporters.

So, to recap, one Republican speaker has already been voted out of the office; another is desperately trying to win the office but has infuriated the very people whose votes he most needs; and the last one does not actually want to be speaker and just wants someone else to finally win enough support.

And, of course, there’s a fourth speaker lurking in Congress, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who stepped down from leadership in January after Republicans took the majority. She’s given herself the honorific “speaker emerita” and once had a nice Capitol office, until McHenry ordered her out after he became acting speaker when Democrats declined to take the unprecedented step of saving McCarthy.

She finds the entire exercise absurd, declaring that Republicans just need to elect someone as speaker, whether it’s McHenry or someone else, and if they need Democratic votes, go talk to Jeffries because he has a firm grip on his caucus.

“You have to make him speaker, and then he has the awesome power of the speakership,” Pelosi told CNN’s Dana Bash on Thursday’s “Inside Politics.”

Instead, no one holds the power.

Some Republicans realized late last week, after Scalise failed to unify ranks and Jordan’s candidacy further divided them, that no one could win the requisite simple majority on the House floor to become speaker.

The only solution, they said, was to work some sort of deal with Democrats.

Who would even be the GOP leader to broker such a deal? The ex-speaker? The speaker-designate? The acting speaker? No one knows.

“We really don’t have anybody negotiating on our behalf, for anything,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a Scalise supporter, told reporters last Thursday. “We’re just kind of stuck in our own world.”