Republicans Can’t Open the House, Which Could Shut Down the Government

Matt McClain/The Washington Post
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) arrives for a House GOP meeting Tuesday.

The repeated failures by House Republicans to elect a new speaker are making the federal government more likely to shut down next month, as the GOP’s weeks-long internal dysfunction threatens to delay vital legislation.

The House has been mostly closed for business since Oct. 3, when a band of far-right rebels ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker. Republicans since have not coalesced around a replacement, running through multiple options without electing anyone. Without a speaker, lawmakers can’t bring bills to the floor.

Late Tuesday, House Republicans chose Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), the fourth-ranking member of leadership, as their fourth speaker nominee in three weeks – and the second of the day. The GOP conference chose Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) on Tuesday morning. By the afternoon, he dropped out of the race once it became clear he lacked sufficient support to win a vote on the full House floor. Former president Donald Trump blasted Emmer shortly after the GOP vote to select him, helping to doom his candidacy.

Johnson, too, may lack enough support to win the speakership. Republicans will not send their nominee before the full House without 217 GOP votes, enough to prevail on the House floor. Johnson clinched the nomination with 128 votes.

Policy discussions have ground to a halt, even as war has broken out in Israel and federal funding is weeks away from expiring. Congress has until Nov. 17 to approve a deal to fund the government, or members of the military risk missing paychecks, national parks will close and the Internal Revenue Service will run shoestring operations.

It’s a high-stakes tussle for the GOP, which has crowed in recent weeks over polling data that reported voters trusted congressional Republicans rather than President Biden on economic policy.

And the longer the impasse lasts, the less time Republicans will have to avoid a government shutdown for which most GOP members concede they would likely bear the blame.

“The clock is ticking every day, and they don’t have near enough time. And it doesn’t even matter who wins the speakership because the caucus is just ungovernable right now,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a conservative-leaning group. “There’s very good reason to be nervous about a shutdown. The odds are increasing.”

Meanwhile, business in the Democratic-controlled Senate has continued apace as members of both parties negotiate over longer-term spending bills, the first of which is expected to come up for a vote this week. Senators have mostly unified to support short-term legislation to keep the government open at current spending levels, and they generally back Biden’s $106 billion foreign aid package to support Ukraine and Israel.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went on “Fox News Sunday” and CBS’s “Face the Nation” over the weekend to press the case for what has quickly become Biden’s signature foreign policy legislation – and to encourage the House to act.

“I hope they can get a speaker sometime soon, because it does send, I think, a poor message to our allies and our enemies around the world,” McConnell said on Fox. “And we also have work to do, we have appropriation bills to pass. We have a supplemental to deal with. So I’m pulling for them to finally wrap this up sometime soon.”

House Republicans last week appeared to settle on an interim plan to reopen the lower chamber for business. The House was set to grant Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), the speaker pro tempore, expanded powers to bring legislation to the floor in light of the deteriorating situation in Israel and Gaza and the approaching funding deadline.

But McHenry declined to endorse such a plan. Some lawmakers said McHenry had the authority to bring legislation to the floor even without specifically delineated powers from the House. The speaker pro tempore threatened to resign that position if those calls increased.

“If it sounds like a mess,” said Bobby Kogan, senior director of federal budget policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, “that’s just because it is a mess.”

Whomever is elected speaker will immediately face the same dynamics that led to McCarthy’s demise, the first time a speaker was removed in the middle of a congressional session.

Facing an imminent government shutdown in September, McCarthy passed a short-term funding bill called a “continuing resolution,” or CR, that kept federal operations going at current spending levels and jettisoned a Senate request for aid for Ukraine. But the proposal was unpopular with hard-line Republicans, who demanded draconian spending cuts.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) threatened to trigger a vote to boot McCarthy if he put that bill on the floor and used Democratic votes to pass it. McCarthy did anyway, daring Gaetz to call for a new speaker. Then seven other Republicans voted to remove McCarthy, as well, and Democrats did not save him.

“In today’s world, you’re sitting in Congress and you took a gamble to make sure the government was still open,” McCarthy said after he was ousted, “and eight people throw you out as speaker and Democrats have said they wanted to keep the government open. I think you’ve got a real problem. I think you’ve got a real institutional problem.”

After removing McCarthy, the GOP rejected both his second-in-command, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), and Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) as replacements, before moving on to rejecting Emmer on Tuesday.

“Most of us are getting beat up for not having someone in the position and looking like clowns,” said one House Republican lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation candidly. “There’s a sense of urgency this week that wasn’t there the last two weeks.”

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Rep. Tom Emmer (R) departs a Republican Caucus meeting on Capitol Hill.

Hard-line Republicans, particularly in the House Freedom Caucus, have a severe distaste for CRs, preferring instead to pass full-year appropriations bills that fund individual government agencies and programs. They’ve also decried spending bills that pass the House using Democratic, rather than party-line Republican, votes.

But the House has only passed four appropriations bills so far, all of them at far lower spending levels than McCarthy and Biden agreed on for the current fiscal year during negotiations to suspend the U.S. debt ceiling in the spring. And now there is not sufficient time for the House to pass the eight remaining bills – which would also spend less than leaders agreed on – and reconcile them with the Senate, rendering another short-term bill passed with help from Democrats probably the only way to avoid a shutdown.

“I think if we can get the seat filled, if we can get whoever it is to put the trains back on the rails again and start moving out and finish the Commitment to America and start getting the appropriation bills passed, avoid a government shutdown – CR strategy now has to be very tight, very clean – then we recover from this,” Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) said Monday. “But we’ve got to be working as a team.”

Some hard-line Republicans have voiced disgust at the prospect of using Democratic votes to install a speaker, or legislate after one is elected.

“We don’t deserve the majority if we go along with the plan to give the Democrats control over the House of Representatives,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) said Thursday. “It’s a giant betrayal to our Republican voters.”

Previous speaker candidates said they would use a CR to fund the government. Scalise conceded to colleagues during his speakership bid that the House’s spell without a leader meant it needed a CR to keep the government open as appropriations work continued.

Jordan pitched to members a longer continuing resolution that stretched through the end of April, using larger budget cuts that are set to kick in after April 30 to compel hard-right Republicans and Democrats to the bargaining table. Those cuts were part of the same agreement between McCarthy and Biden that the House has since ignored in passing spending measures.

“That’s probably the most realistic plan we’ve got,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a key vote that sunk Jordan, said last week.

Added Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), another anti-Jordan vote: “I think the [House Democrats] would be hard pressed not to vote for a clean CR with the hope that at some point they negotiate with the Senate.”