There is increasing concern in national security circles about the status of the House of Representatives, bereft of a Speaker, during an international crisis.
It has been made clear to Fox that events in the Middle East are not an attack on the U.S., but “on an ally.” However, one source noted that these circumstances can devolve quickly. It was underscored to Fox that if nothing else, the Middle East violence highlights the importance of having an operational House of Representatives and a Speaker.
“The Middle East might speed up the election of a Speaker,” said one House Republican who asked to remain nameless. “This points to why it was a bad idea to kick out (former House Speaker) Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).”
The late British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan famously declared that “events” were the most important factor in governance.
Here we have had an “event” in the Middle East. This potentially influences the thinking of House Republicans as the vacant Speakership starts to approach a week. Those who may have been willing to slow-roll the selection of a Speaker may quickly get religion.
Fox is told if push came to shove, “(CIA) Director (Bill) Burns and (Director of National Intelligence) Avril (Haines) would probably go ahead and brief (House Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick) McHenry (R-N.C.) because it’s the right thing to do.”
CIA and State Department officials briefed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) while he was at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai. Schumer is now in China on a long-planned official trip.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) received a briefing and is now trying to arrange a briefing for all House members.
At the very least, this is a terrible optics problem for Republicans.
Democrats are carrying out their duties of governing while Republicans fight among themselves after they bounced their own Speaker from the job.
A source noted to Fox that McHenry would certainly receive a briefing if there was a direct threat to the United States or the U.S. needed to be involved militarily.
“Say if this went to DEFCON 2,” said a source.
“DEFCON 1” is the highest “defense condition” security posture the U.S. has.
However, the House is paralyzed right now without a Speaker. McCarthy, reiterated this problem, during an appearance on Fox Saturday afternoon.
“There is nothing the House can do until they elect a Speaker. And I don’t know if that happens quickly,” said McCarthy.
The California Republican knocked down suggestions on Friday that he would resign from Congress. There are now rumblings that perhaps McCarthy could rise from the political ashes like a phoenix and return to the Speaker’s suite.
“Don’t be surprised if you see calls just like that for Kevin to re-emerge,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.) on Fox before the Middle East crisis.
After all, a supermajority of all House Republicans support McCarthy. Many think the junta of eight Republicans who voted to banish McCarthy did so with little cause and were far from justified in doing so. Thus, McCarthy might be the most-electable figure in the House considering global circumstances.
But for now, the House cannot function. This would be a far worse scenario if American adversaries like Russia, China, North Korea or Iran were to do something to the U.S. now.
But here’s the problem for McHenry. The House created the concept of “Speaker Pro Tempore” as part of “continuity of government” concerns following 9/11. The House did not anticipate installing a Speaker Pro Tempore over a political dispute which resulted in the removal of the sitting Speaker.
Scholars argue that McHenry cannot do anything to run the House except gavel in, gavel out and preside over the election of a new Speaker. However, there is some parliamentary evidence that the House did advance a minor resolution in 1814 after House Speaker Henry Clay briefly stepped aside.
While the intelligence community may be willing to include McHenry in national security matters now, there is concern among House institutionalists about every action McHenry may take right now.
The House operates off a series of precedents: Hinds’, Deschler’s and Cannon’s. These books dictate future maneuvers of the House – predicated on how the House operated in the past. Any action McHenry takes as Speaker Pro Tempore establishes a new precedent, dictating the authority of potential future Speakers Pro Tempores.
As it was put to Fox, if McHenry is aggressive in wielding power, that will give the next Speaker Pro Tempore wider latitude. One source said that if McHenry goes too far, that establishes a precedent which may cause some in Congress to ask why they even bother to elect a Speaker and may just start “appointing a Speaker Pro Tempore by 2055.”
In other words, if McHenry takes an intelligence briefing on the Middle East, future Speakers Pro Tempore may do that. If he tries to advance a bill on the floor, future Speakers Pro Tempore may do that, too.
“This is mission creep for a Speaker Pro Tempore,” said one knowledgeable House parliamentary source. “A crisis could completely change the role for the future.”
But consider this. The House decision to create a “Speaker Pro Tempore” after 9/11 was so there was a functioning institution amid a crisis. Surely leaders thought that the Speaker Pro Tempore could take action to respond to critical events. Granted, there isn’t a vacancy in the Speakership because the Speaker was killed in a 9/11-style terrorism attack. But the imprimatur is that the House wanted the body to be functional. And right now, the body is not.
Fox is told this is why McHenry may be reluctant to take any action on any subject until the House elects a bona fide Speaker. He is handcuffed. But each move by McHenry could widen the authority for the role. Fox is told that’s why McHenry appears to be mindful and judicious in the use of any perceived powers he may have now.
“There are guardrails,” said one source. “But because this is unprecedented, they don’t have to be followed.”
On Friday afternoon, it looked as though it may take days to elect a Speaker. But, as Harold MacMillan postulated, “events” sometimes alter the course of governing.
House Republicans are scheduled to meet for a closed door House GOP Conference meeting late Monday.
On Tuesday, House GOPers will conduct their “candidate forum” where those running for the Speakership make their pitches to rank-and-file Members. Then, the Republican Conference will convene again behind closed doors on Wednesday for a “secret ballot” to tap their nominee for Speaker. This is NOT the Speaker election. The FULL HOUSE must elect the Speaker. And the number needed to prevail on the floor is much higher than the number needed to win in the conference.
On one hand, this is why it could take House Republicans a while to sort out the Speakership. Republicans don’t plan to have a vote on the floor for Speaker until a candidate has the votes lined up.
Republicans believe it is a terrible look to have repeated, failed, floor vote after floor vote for Speaker, ala January for McCarthy. Republicans believe failed vote after failed vote could underscore chaos on their side of the aisle. So they want to get this nailed down offstage quickly.
So, it could take some time.
But on the other hand, we have had an intervening event. And Harold MacMillan might suggest that the Middle East war suddenly accelerated the process of electing a new House Speaker.