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Explained | What happens next in the US House Speaker saga

The US House is set to return to Washington on Monday with no speaker, and no solution in sight to the Republican feuding that has left the post vacant and the chamber paralyzed for nearly two weeks.

Rep. Jim Jordan, the hard-right Ohio Republican and chair of the Judiciary Committee, became his party’s latest speaker-designate Friday, after a majority of Republicans voted by secret ballot to name him their party’s candidate. But Jordan, who is popular with the GOP base and a close ally of former President Donald Trump, is well short of the 217 votes he would need to be elected, amid resistance from many of the more mainstream Republicans.

As Republicans were scheduled to trickle back into town Monday, the only thing that was clear was that it would be extremely difficult — perhaps impossible — for any nominee to win the necessary votes.

Here’s a look at what comes next:

What now?

The House is scheduled to convene at 6 p.m. Monday, and Republicans have announced that the first votes of the week will be Tuesday at noon, meaning that a speaker election could come then. It would be almost exactly two weeks after Kevin McCarthy was ousted from the speakership by a small far-right faction. Jordan is trying to move quickly, and his allies spent the weekend pressuring Republicans opposing him to fall in line.

So far, the math has not added up for Jordan. In a secret-ballot vote Friday after he was nominated, 55 Republicans said they would oppose Jordan on the House floor. That put Jordan in a similar spot to Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican who first won the speaker nomination last week after McCarthy’s ouster, but then quickly withdrew from consideration after he failed to consolidate enough support to be elected on the House floor.

Jordan’s allies expect that many of the holdouts would cave during a floor vote, unwilling to publicly stand against a Trump-backed candidate who has the support of the party’s grassroots. But some Republicans have vowed to block Jordan’s elevation. If he lacks the support to prevail, Jordan could easily postpone a vote, just as he did Friday. He could also try to grind it out in multiple rounds of voting, as McCarthy did in January. Or he could follow Scalise’s example and simply drop out altogether.

Electing the next speaker

The process of electing a new speaker is low-tech and transparent, as the world learned in January during McCarthy’s once-in-a-century floor fight to win the gavel. The entire House of Representatives gathers in the chamber, and lawmakers cast their votes in alphabetical order, by standing up and yelling out a name. Whoever earns a majority of those present and participating wins the race.

If the entire House is in attendance, that means a nominee needs at least 217 votes to be elected speaker. (There are currently 433 members of the House and two vacancies). The math can change if there are absences, or if any lawmakers vote “present” rather than in support of a candidate.

If no one succeeds in meeting that threshold, the House simply continues to hold elections until someone does. Typically, a speaker has been elected after one floor vote. But if that proves impossible, the process can drag on indefinitely. McCarthy only prevailed after five days and 15 votes.

Could Republicans form a coalition with Democrats?

The 212 Democrats in the House are expected to vote as a united bloc for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the minority leader, just as they did in January. There is virtually no chance that any of them would help elect Jordan, a far-right figure who has been called a “legislative terrorist” by a former speaker of his own party and who many Democrats consider a partisan extremist who helped instigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Jeffries has pitched the idea of forming a coalition government that he describes as an “enlightened arrangement.” But the idea is a long shot. And given that he has more votes than any Republican seeking the speakership, it is highly unlikely that Jeffries would agree to cede to a GOP candidate without substantial concessions.

Jeffries said Democrats would team with Republicans to elect a speaker only if they agreed to change House rules to allow “governance by consensus”; in other words, allowing bills with bipartisan support to come to the floor. The Rules Committee, which determines what legislation gets a vote, is now structured so that Republicans are in complete control of what bills the House considers. That means that Democratic priorities are almost always blocked and the hard right effectively has veto power on what is considered and what is not.

On Sunday, Jeffries said that “there are informal conversations that have been underway,” but he declined to offer any details about what a power-sharing agreement would look like.

Is the House still working without a speaker?

Legislative business in the House has been halted for two weeks as Republicans struggle to unite behind a speaker. That includes work on legislation to fund the government and avoid a shutdown that will begin in about a month if no action is taken. Also frozen is any consideration of an aid package to Israel, something that President Joe Biden has said is an urgent priority after the terrorist group Hamas launched one of the broadest incursions into Israeli territory in 50 years.

Is there a way for the House to function without an elected speaker?

Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina is acting as the “speaker pro tempore,” a position created after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to ensure continuity of government in case the speaker were killed or incapacitated. The position has never been tested, and so far, McHenry and House aides have interpreted the role very narrowly, simply as a placeholder who presides over the election of a new speaker.

Some more centrist GOP lawmakers have been working on a resolution that would explicitly grant McHenry the power to bring legislation to the floor, giving his inchoate role more clearly defined authority.

Doing so would require a vote, and it is not clear that Republicans would go along with such a move. Empowering McHenry, one of McCarthy’s closest allies, would be regarded by many far-right members as akin to reinstalling McCarthy as speaker. It is also not clear whether Democrats would support it, unless they secured commitments that their legislative priorities would be addressed.

Another option would be for McHenry to simply attempt to bring up a bill and, should a lawmaker challenge his power to do so, the issue would be put to a vote of the House. If an overwhelming majority were in favor of such a measure — for instance one providing aid to Israel or keeping government funding flowing to avert a shutdown — the House could act.

(Published 16 October 2023, 16:37 IST)

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