Temporary House speaker Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., gavels the House into session as as Republicans try for a second day and on the second ballot, to elect Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a top Donald Trump ally, to be the new House speaker, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Twenty-two House Republicans rejected Representative Jim Jordan’s speaker bid. They faced threats of primary challenges from Jordan’s allies before the vote. Now, at least two have received death threats and are responding defiantly. Jordan has disavowed the threatening messages, but the pugnacious Ohioan has a long history of bullying tactics and hasn’t disavowed his pressure campaign. 

For Republicans to unify around a nominee for speaker was already hard, thanks to deep divisions over spending levels, Ukraine aid, and willingness to shut down the government. The mistrust between House members may have become too palpable for any candidate to win on a party-line vote. 

This leaves only one option to re-open the House: a bipartisan Speaker. 

But how? The Republican holdouts may be relatively moderate, but they are far from eager to lock arms with Democrats. One of them, Representative Mike Lawler of New York, remains livid that Democrats joined with the far-right splinter faction to oust Kevin McCarthy and has dismissed the idea of a “bipartisan compromise.”  

Similarly, Democrats loathe voting for anyone who isn’t their leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries. Many believe Republicans should offer concessions if they want Democratic help. For example, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent states, “Democrats are discussing the idea of a mechanism that would give them more leverage over what bills get a floor vote.” 

An overtly transactional deal, with the Republican majority ceding power, seems highly unlikely. Any supportive House Republican would become easy pickings in a party primary. The easier way forward would be an unconditional resolution removing the “acting” designation to the current Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, and explicitly granting him power to open the House floor for legislative business. That would allow passage of time-sensitive bills to keep the government open as well as approve aid to Ukraine and Israel.  

Why should Republican conference empower McHenry? Because, as recent votes indicate, most of its members want to keep the government open and approve aid to Ukraine and Israel. Concern that Jordan can’t be trusted to carry out those tasks—the 59-year-old former wrestling coach has opposed bills assisting Kyiv—appears to have motivated most of the holdouts. 

Seven of Jordan’s Republican opponents sit on the House Appropriations Committee, which writes the spending bills that keep the government open. Representative Steve Womack of Arkansas, in an October 16 CNN interview, made clear he does not trust that Jordan would avert a shutdown: “After all, two weeks ago, Mr. Jordan voted against the continuing resolution on the very day that the funding was about to lapse, and so he, in essence, voted for a government shutdown.” 

And Womack said appropriators are already frustrated that the far-right elements of the GOP conference have pressured them to draft bills with deep cuts that can’t pass the Senate. “We’re concerned about those topline numbers that we’re being forced to [use],” said Womack, “[They] are not going to become law.” Jordan tried to assuage moderate Republicans with a plan to avert a shutdown. As NBC News reported, Jordan proposed a stopgap bill to keep the government open through April and take advantage of a provision in the debt-limit deal that passed earlier this year, which would impose an across-the-board one-percent cut from current spending levels if Congress doesn’t pass the complete set of individual spending bills by the end of December. The provision was put in to incentivize compromise on milder budget restraints, but Jordan wants the ax to drop. 

But Jordan’s proposal riled up some defense hawks who fear that ax. Representative Jen Kiggans of Virginia, one of five House Armed Services Committee members who opposed Jordan, said after Tuesday’s vote on the speakership, “Mr. Jordan’s government funding plan has the potential to further cut the defense budget, which is already inadequate in my opinion.” She added that Jordan wouldn’t rule out a shutdown. Left unsaid was that Jordan has long been viewed warily by GOP hawks because he has opposed most bills providing military aid to Ukraine.  

So why should Democrats empower McHenry? For the same reasons as Republicans, to keep the government open and approve foreign aid. 

As I argued previously, in support of keeping McCarthy in power, Democrats aren’t going to get much more out of this divided Congress than keeping the government open. But with the economy already on a positive trajectory, continued stability is what they need to create the best possible conditions to re-elect Joe Biden and regain control of the chamber. A protracted shutdown—while bad politics for Republicans, at least in the short run—could harm economic growth and, come Election Day, drag down the Democratic president and his party.  

And since most Democrats support aid to Ukraine and Israel (recall that a 2021 bill to fund Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system passed 420 to 9), they don’t want that held up either. 

McHenry was by McCarthy’s side when he negotiated the debt limit deal with Biden, publicly opposed shutdowns, and has a record of supporting Ukraine. Democrats don’t have to insist on advance concessions. They can have faith that if McHenry is empowered to run the House on a bipartisan vote, he will move the legislation that needs to be moved. After all, most House Republicans voted for the debt-limit deal, the continuing resolution that kept the government open, and aid for Ukraine.  

The only representatives who will hate giving the gavel to McHenry are the far-right nihilists who plotted to oust McCarthy in hopes of undoing the debt-limit deal, slashing spending, and pulling the plug on Ukraine. 

Chaos agent Steven Bannon and his online show War Room successfully boosted Representative Matt Gaetz’s effort to strip the gavel from McCarthy. On Wednesday morning, he and Representative Matt Rosendale of Montana urged his listeners to badger the Republican opponents to Jordan. “He’s a symbol of breaking the system,” Bannon said of Jordan. Rosendale concurred: “The fact that the Swamp is working this hard against him shows that they are concerned about the change.”  

 “This is a fight we’ve wanted for a long time … You’ve always wanted limited government, or you want fiscal responsibility,” Bannon told his viewers. “You’re not going to get it until you take the trenching tool and dig out what they call the ‘cardinals,’” he added, referring to the influential Appropriations Committee members. Bannon went on to conspiratorially accuse Biden of proposing a $100 billion package of aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan (with some funds marked for U.S. southern border security) as a “snack” for defense contractors so they would lobby against Jordan.  

A few proposals have been floated to empower McHenry. Two separate Republican proposals would give him full Speaker powers, one through mid-November and one through end of the year.  

An offer from a small group of Democratic moderates would allow McHenry to only advance legislation that kept the government open and funded Israel and Ukraine. Such constraints are needless. Even if House Republicans moved other legislation on party-line votes—hardly a given, considering the depths of GOP disarray—they would die in the Democratic Senate. (Furthermore, those Republicans otherwise prepared to operate in a bipartisan fashion may feel they need to retain the capacity to move some partisan messaging bills to ward off primary challengers.) 

The same goes for any threat of impeaching Biden. There’s no evidence that 218 Republicans, which would have to include Republicans in Biden-won districts, are willing to go there. If they went ahead with a transparently political impeachment, Biden would be acquitted in the Senate, and would likely cause Republicans to suffer with swing voters.  

There’s no point making the scope of the Speaker Pro Tempore’s powers an obstacle for a bipartisan solution that would sideline the Bannonites and make Washington functional again.  

Besides, once you get into specific conditions, the odds of a deal dissipate because few will want to publicly defend concessions, especially on the GOP side. Granting McHenry unconditional power avoids that obstacle.  

Am I optimistic that a bipartisan solution will prevail? Not at all. The same mistrust that took down McCarthy hasn’t dissipated.  

But at the time, I don’t see any other way out. 

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.