Â© The U.S. Capitol is seen at sunrise as Republican House members will today continue their search to find a House speaker following the ouster of Kevin McCarthy, in Washington, U.S., October 13, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON () – As the flames of war burn in the Middle East and Ukraine, the U.S. Congress is immobilized by a brawl among Republicans, a dysfunction that even some in Donald Trump’s party worry is giving comfort to the nation’s adversaries.
The House of Representatives has drifted leaderless for 12 days since eight of its 221 Republicans ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy. That has held up any legislative action, from debating further aid to Ukraine as it battles a Russian invasion to a statement of support for ally Israel in its war with Hamas.
Republicans on Friday nominated hardliner Jim Jordan for speaker, but it was not clear if the longtime antagonist of party leadership would have the support needed to win a floor vote this week.
McCarthy’s removal was the latest in a series of self-created crises Congress has faced in a year that saw lawmakers bring the federal government to the brink of defaulting on its $31.4 trillion in debt and just two weeks ago narrowly avert the fourth partial U.S. government shutdown in a decade.
That latter move led to McCarthy’s ouster by colleagues angry that the spending bill passed with more Democratic than Republican votes, even though any measure passed by the House needs to clear the Democratic-controlled Senate and be signed by Democratic President Joe Biden to become law.
Some House Republicans voiced frustration and anger that they have gone so long without being able to choose a leader.
“The world is on fire. Our adversaries are watching what we do and … quite frankly, they like it,” said Republican House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul.
Speaking to reporters as his colleagues huddled to discuss their next moves, McCaul added, “I see a lot of threats out there. One of the biggest threats I see is in that room because we can’t unify as a conference.”
The dysfunction was undermining Americans’ already weak confidence in Congress, with two-thirds of respondents to a /Ipsos survey this month saying they did not believe Washington politicians could set aside partisan differences for the good of the nation. Half said they did not believe lawmakers could carry out their most basic function of passing laws.
Former President Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination, has at times been a cheerleader for the chaos.
The logjam continued as fighting in the Middle East intensified with Israel launching an assault on the Gaza Strip following a surprise attack by Hamas fighters.
Lawmakers of both parties have voiced support for Israel, but a leaderless House has been unable to take any official action. Republican Representative Zach Nunn said the conflict hit home in his Iowa district.
He said a local family struggled to fly out of Israel until a private airplane was arranged, a Des Moines family was “trapped” in Gaza and some military friends aboard U.S. ships now in the Mediterranean would see their paychecks suspended if Congress does not avert a government shutdown next month.
“Let’s start passing budgets. Let’s start moving forward with our national security. Let’s stand with our strongest ally in the Middle East right now. And most importantly, let’s have a government that is functioning,” Nunn told reporters.
House Democrats echoed that stance.
“We hope our Republican colleagues will put an end to the self-inflicted chaos so that we can begin to govern on behalf of the American people,” Representative Pete Aguilar, a member of House Democratic leadership, told reporters.
The troubles are not confined to the House.
In the Democratic-controlled Senate, a Republican has since February single-handedly held up the confirmations of hundreds of military officers, including many top commanders.
Senator Tommy Tuberville is protesting a Pentagon policy that reimburses service members for out-of-state travel to access abortions.
After the attack on Israel, Tuberville said he will not drop his blockade of Biden’s nominees.
Meanwhile, 20 months into Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, many Republicans in Congress want to back away from additional military and economic aid to Kyiv, feeding uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“With the pressing needs we have right now for additional support for both Israel and Ukraine, the lack of a speaker … is very problematic,” said Elizabeth Hoffman, director of congressional and government affairs at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
“The needs are very urgent and are not getting less urgent,” she said in a telephone interview.
All year Congress has been locked in a bitter struggle as hardline House Republicans demand profound government spending cuts as a way of starting to tame a budget deficit that reached about $1.7 trillion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
As a result, federal agencies face many of their operations ceasing on Nov. 17 unless a deal can be reached.
“I just sense a real clash coming here in early November,” said William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Some Republicans were not fazed by the House’s lingering stalemate.
“We can go without a speaker for a long time because Congress doesn’t actually have to be in,” said Representative Scott Perry, who chairs the right-wing House Freedom Caucus. “The American people are at work today. Babies are being born today and this isn’t the first thing on their priority list.”