As Republicans split over who will be House speaker, McCarthy positions himself as a de facto leader

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BY LISA MASCARO AND KEVIN FREKING

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans have no clear idea who will be U.S. House speaker, leaving an unprecedented power vacuum in Congress and severely limiting America’s ability to quickly respond to the crisis in Israel — or any number of other problems at home or abroad.

On Monday, the ousted former speaker, Kevin McCarthy, quickly jumped into the void, bitterly criticizing President Joe Biden’s administration over the strength of its defense of Israel and positioning himself as a de facto Republican leader even though his colleagues toppled him from power.

But it’s not at all clear if McCarthy could seriously make a comeback — or if one of the other Republicans seeking the gavel, Steve Scalise or Jim Jordan, can be elected speaker as their majority stumbles into infighting. House Republicans are scheduled to meet behind closed doors Monday evening to try to regain control of their majority ahead of possible speaker votes this week.

“Whether I’m speaker or not … I can lead in any position I’m in,” McCarthy, R-Calif., said at the Capitol.

The upheaval in the House puts the U.S. Congress at a crossroads during a time of crisis, the first time in history it has booted a speaker from power, operating without a constitutional officer, second in line to the presidency. House business, and with it most congressional action, has come to a standstill.

It’s not at all clear what, if anything, the Congress can do with only an interim leader. At risk is immediate aid to Israel along with passage of a resolution that would show U.S. support for Israel and condemnation of Hamas for the attack as the region is now engulfed in war.

And there are broader demands on Congress, including Ukraine’s requests for aid as it fights Russia and the need to fund the U.S. government again by Nov. 17 or risk a federal shutdown. The Senate meanwhile is also out of session, on recess until next week.

“Does anybody have the votes? No,” said Rep. Mike Lawler of New York, a centrist Republican pushing for McCarthy to be reinstated as speaker.

Republicans were scheduled to meet privately Monday evening as they assessed the path forward after McCarthy’s historic ouster by a handful of hardline Republicans led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

Gaetz has said on social media there are “two great men” running for speaker, indicating he could support either Scalise or Jordan.

But neither Scalise, the majority leader who is the second-ranking Republican in the House, nor Jordan, who is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and backed by Donald Trump, appears to have the votes needed to secure the majority vote.

Both Republicans who have eyed the speaker’s gavel for some time come with political strengths, but also baggage that leaves colleagues split and skeptical.

Scalise is battling blood cancer, and is seen by a hero among colleagues for having survived severe injuries from a mass shooting during a congressional baseball game practice in 2017. But the Louisiana Republican had apologized in 2014 after he was found to have addressed a white supremacist group in 2002 founded by a former Ku Klux Klan leader. Scalise said he didn’t know of the group’s racial views.

Jordan is a high-profile political firebrand known for his close alliance with Trump, particularly when the then-president was working to overturn the results of the 2020 election, leading to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Some years ago, Jordan and his office denied allegations from former wrestlers during his time as an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University who accused him of knowing about claims they were inappropriately groped by an Ohio doctor. Jordan and his office have said he was never aware of any abuse.

“House Republicans need to unite and show the country that we’re fighting for them,” Jordan said Sunday on Fox News.

The House Republicans hold just a slim majority and they are considering rules changes to avoid another spectacle electing a new speaker, like the 15 rounds it took McCarthy in January to seize the gavel when Gaetz and others first blocked him at the start of the year.

While the full House ultimately votes on the new speaker, the position usually falls to a person from the party with the House majority.

One idea is to require the candidate for House speaker to reach the 218 majority threshold during internal voting behind closed doors before the Republicans bring the vote up publicly on the House floor.

Another idea is to change the rule that allows a single lawmaker to make a “motion to vacate” the office — which is the rare procedural tool Gaetz used to force a snap vote that ousted McCarthy. In previous years, it required more the one lawmaker to make the motion.

But the evening meeting was expected to be long on infighting and short on solutions as Republicans reeled from the chaos that has thrown their majority into grave turmoil.

Democrats so far reject both Scalise and Jordan, and are almost certain to vote against either Republican. McCarthy’s ouster came with the help of Democrats, who voiced their disdain for the speaker and joined with eight Republicans to oust him.

For now, no consensus candidate who could bridge both parties seems at all within reach.

Meantime, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., has been named as speaker pro tempore, a position created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to ensure the continuity of government in Washington.

The rules around the temporary speaker position have been untested before, though they appear to indicate the main power in the role is to ensure the election of a new speaker.

But if House Republicans are unable to quickly agree on a speaker, McHenry could be in the position for some time.

Any moves McHenry makes in the temporary position have the potential to become precedent-setting for the House. The North Carolina Republican is viewed as a serious legislator, with nearly 20 years in office, even though his first act was to boot Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi from her private office at the Capitol.

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