A Historic Week in Washington
In a surprising turn of events last weekend, then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) introduced a Continuing Resolution to maintain current FY 23 funding levels until November 17. The House quickly passed the CR by a 335-91 vote on Saturday, with just 90 Republicans and one Democrat voting against the stopgap funding bill.
The Senate then voted 88-9 for the House-passed bill, which was very similar to its own CR, but lacked the $6 billion it sought to assist Ukraine and did not include spending flexibility for the Department of Education as it restarts student loan payments this month. President Biden signed the bipartisan bill, averting what could have been a protracted government shutdown beginning Sunday, October 1.
The passage of a relatively clean CR without additional spending cuts rankled some hardline conservatives, who were already unhappy with McCarthy about inadequate cuts in the FY 24 spending bills and his deal with President Biden on the debt limit agreement. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) acted upon earlier threats by hardliners, filing a motion to vacate Speaker McCarthy from his office. McCarthy was removed as Speaker of the House on Tuesday, a first in the history of Congress, with Democrats joining eight Republicans in the 216-210 vote.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) is now acting speaker, as he was picked by McCarthy for the role when McCarthy was elected speaker in January. The process was designed after September 11, 2001, to uphold continuity in government in case of a disaster.
After McCarthy’s removal, Washington’s attention has been transfixed by the upcoming election for speaker. McCarthy has announced that he will not seek the office again. Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who is Chair of the Judiciary Committee and an original co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, are both seeking the gavel. Former President Donald Trump has endorsed Jordan.
There are significant differences between the two leaders. Scalise has a broader overall base of support within the Republican Conference, having served in the leadership in prior Congresses, but Jordan has been the darling of the most conservative members who have praised his no holds barred style. The two men also have divergent voting records, with Jordan voted against the CR and against $300 million in funding for Ukraine, while Scalise voted for both. Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK), Chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, also may run. Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-IN) has endorsed Scalise and hopes to become Majority Leader if Scalise’s current position becomes open.
Any prospective House Speaker needs to capture 217 votes, typically 218 but there are two vacancies, and can only lose four Republican votes. Thus, it may take some time for the Republican Conference, which spans a wide ideological spectrum from roughly three-dozen Freedom Caucus members to 18 Members elected in districts President Biden won, to unite behind one candidate.
Speaker Pro Tempore McHenry intends to hold a closed-door candidate forum on Tuesday evening, with a speaker election on Wednesday. The Republican Conference would vote to select its nominee, which takes a two-thirds vote of the Conference under current rules, though some have called for raising the threshold to the majority number eventually needed on the House floor. If a strong candidate emerges, McHenry plans to proceed with a floor vote on the Speaker. House Democrats will vote for House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who recently called for a bipartisan governing coalition.
The next Speaker will have a tough road ahead, needing to pass another Continuing Resolution before November 17 or face a shutdown. A prospective Speaker may also seek to revisit House rules to change the current one-vote threshold for any Member to offer a Motion to Vacate the Speaker.
In the Senate, which has not passed any of its twelve FY 24 appropriations bills on the floor, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is working to secure a time agreement on a three-bill minibus when the Senate returns from recess the week of October 16. The three bills are the Military Construction-VA bill, the Agriculture-FDA bill, and the Transportation-HUD bill.
Regardless of the outcome of the election of the Speaker, the House and Senate both face daunting tasks to successfully complete the FY 24 appropriations process before the end of the year or face a 1 percent cut to all federal programs until all the appropriations bills are eventually enacted.