October 19, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Speaker McHenry, sorta, maybe?

It’s the best guess, according to one authority on the US Congress.

Acting Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry, left. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Acting Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry, left. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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I was getting pretty nervous. For a minute there, it looked like Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan had built up enough momentum over the weekend to become the next House speaker. 

That would have been bad for reasons I recount here and here (the latter link includes an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch – highly recommended!). A Speaker Jordan would made a chaotic House of Representatives even more chaotic. The whole point of his career has been going to war with democratic institutions.

By Monday, it looked like he’d beaten into submission enough “moderates” to win. Even Fox’s Sean Hannity took a turn at lobbying for Donald Trump’s favorite congressional toady. All that remained was a floor vote, scheduled for Tuesday evening, to see who remained. 

“The House would have to figure out some way to do business under McHenry, either by making him speaker pro tem (ie, no longer acting speaker pro tem) or by allowing the House to move business with an acting speaker pro tem in the chair,” says Josh Chafetz.

By that evening, however, something had changed. Momentum suddenly faded against the resilience of about 20 Republicans. They weren’t budging. Jordan could afford to lose only five. Here were 20!

By Wednesday morning, at the second vote, it was clear that those 20 were going up in number! I lost count but around 20 more, who had been for Jordan on Monday, were against him on Tuesday. 

Things are not going to get better. Jordan brought down on the GOP “moderates” the wrath of the rightwing media apparatus, including that of the party’s leading contender. He moved many of them, but when the holdouts made their intentions clear on Monday, that inspired those who had caved to rediscover their pride, and defect. Jordan bet it all on total aggression and the gambit failed. There’s no returning from that.

As of this writing, there are no more votes scheduled. That’s as good a sign as any that Jordan’s bid for the speakership is quickly ending. The House is closed for business. The only focus is electing a speaker.

That process is being led by Acting Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry. Many Republicans are talking about making him permanent. Some Democrats are (mostly seriously) talking about a power-sharing arrangement by which Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries is speaker. 

Josh Chafetz was watching all this at the same time I was. He’s a professor of law and politics at Georgetown University and the author of Congress’s Constitution: Legislative Authority and the Separation of Powers. As an authority on the subject, I wanted his thoughts on the Jordan fiasco. There wasn’t much time, but we managed this much.


JS: Did Jordan’s “hardball” tactics backfire?

JC: I would guess that they backfired in terms of the total number of his opponents, but I’m skeptical that he could have gotten to 217 [which is the victory threshold], even had he played his cards perfectly.

JS: What’s next? Speaker McHenry?

JC: My best guess from the very beginning of all this is that the House would have to figure out some way to do business under McHenry, either by making him speaker pro tem (ie, no longer acting speaker pro tem) or by simply allowing the House to move business with an acting speaker pro tem in the chair. So my best guess is that they start to move some business under McHenry. For how long … who knows?

JS: If so, what about the “motion to vacate” rule that doomed McCarthy? That would in theory give a veto to one Democrat, too. 

JC: Sure, except that’s just the authority to bring the resolution to the floor. You still need a floor majority that’s willing to dump the speaker.

JS: Some anti-Jordan Republicans really seem invested in their reputations among constituents and the press for wanting to govern reasonably, as opposed to some of their colleagues who don’t seem to care. Is that an indication of the future or a leftover from a bygone era?

JC: I think there will probably always be members of both parties who are show horses and members who are workhorses. The House GOP conference seems pretty heavy on show horses right now, but in a closely divided House, the workhorses — like pretty much any small group — can hold the balance in their hands if they work together.

JS: Lots of people blame the Democrats for this mess. Fair?

JC: No. The minority party always votes for its own candidate for speaker. If the majority wants to break that norm, it needs to offer something juicy in return. By all accounts, the Republicans have not offered the Democrats anything. You don’t trade something for nothing.

JS: As an expert on the Congress, does this one rank pretty high in the history of chaotic Congresses? Put it in some historical perspective.

JC: This is pretty chaotic, to be sure. But I think the only way to judge is to wait and see. If this causes a long-term inability to do business, leading to a long shutdown, etc., it will start to rank high on the chaos-meter. If not, maybe not so much. There’s also the longer term question of what this means for GOP conference dynamics going forward: just how much will this whole incident reset norms about voting with your party on procedural matters? Only way to know is to wait and see.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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