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12 October 2023

Israel has magnified the US’s political dysfunction

Confronted with a grave security crisis, the House of Representatives is effectively paralysed.

By Katie Stallard

Update: Steve Scalise, the Republican party’s nominee for house speaker, announced on 12 October that he was withdrawing from the race after failing to secure enough support, leaving the lower chamber of congress leaderless and the Republican party in disarray.

WASHINGTON – There is no good time for the US House of Representatives to be without a Speaker. No legislation can be passed, no spending bills approved, and one of the main branches of government is effectively paralysed. But with Israel – a major US ally – now at war, another war still raging in Europe, and less than 40 days to fund the US government, the absence of a functioning Congress is particularly glaring.

Joe Biden has been unequivocal in his support for Israel since Hamas attacked from Gaza on 7 October. In a televised speech from the White House on 10 October the president condemned the “pure unadulterated evil” of the assault and declared, “We stand with Israel.” Flanked by Kamala Harris, the vice-president, and Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, he vowed to “make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of itself”. A US carrier strike group has been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean and Blinken has been dispatched to Israel to signal the US’s solidarity. American military aid is on its way.

Yet there is a limit to what the executive branch can do on its own. Congress must approve government funding – by design, the US constitution vests the “power of the purse” in Congress as a check on executive power – and without a Speaker in place, the lower house is unable to pass legislation or to approve additional aid to Israel, or Ukraine. Despite warnings from the Pentagon that the money for military aid to Ukraine is running out, an additional funding package that would have secured the supply of US weapons and ammunition was stripped out of a last-minute deal on 30 September to avoid the government shutting down for lack of money. No apparent progress has been made on the issue since.

The eight hard-right Republicans led by the Florida congressman Matt Gaetz who voted to remove Kevin McCarthy as Speaker on 3 October – together with the Democrats who voted unanimously alongside them – knew this. In the final moments before the vote, successive lawmakers rose to appeal to their colleagues to consider what lay ahead. “Think long and hard before you plunge us into chaos,” urged Tom Cole, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma who chairs the House Rules Committee. “Because that’s where we’re headed if we vacate the speakership.” When the result was announced – removing the House Speaker for the first time in the 234-year history of Congress – a woman’s voice on the Republican side of the chamber could be heard asking, “Now what?”

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Asked after the weekend’s attacks what impact the vacant speakership would have on the US’s ability to provide support for Israel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Michael McCaul, acknowledged that the current dysfunction sent a terrible signal to America’s enemies. “It wasn’t my idea to oust the speaker,” he said in an interview. “I thought it was dangerous. I look at the world and all the threats that are out there. And what kind of message are we sending to our adversaries when we can’t govern?” He said it was essential to get a new Speaker in place this week to take basic steps, such as approving military aid to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system. As it stands, the House cannot even pass a resolution condemning the assault.

House Republicans began the process of choosing a new Speaker in a private meeting on 11 October, hoping to avoid the excruciating spectacle that preceded McCarthy’s election in January as he endured 15 humiliating rounds of voting on the floor of Congress and the party’s divisions were aired on live television. Steve Scalise, who is alleged to have once called himself “David Duke without the baggage” (referring to the former “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan) but is seen as an establishment candidate by the current standards of the Republican party, was selected as the party’s nominee in a secret ballot, but it was unclear by the end of the day whether he had enough votes to secure the role. A floor vote was called and then postponed as negotiations continued behind the scenes. Several prominent Republicans on the far-right fringe of the party, such as the Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, said they planned to vote instead for Jim Jordan, who was once described by the former Speaker John Boehner as a “legislative terrorist” and has, perhaps unsurprisingly, secured the “Complete and Total Endorsement” of Donald Trump.

Confronted with a grave security crisis – in which at least 22 US citizens have been killed and 17 are missing, feared kidnapped – it is tempting to believe that Republicans will now set aside their internal squabbles and coalesce behind a new Speaker so that the House can get back to work. This is still possible, but it would represent a dramatic departure from recent form. It would also be just a first step. The next Speaker, whoever they might be, will still have to grapple with all the same issues that doomed McCarthy: a razor thin majority, a bitterly divided house, and the “burn it all down” wing of the Republican party, personified by Gaetz, that is in thrall to Trump and barely believes in government at all.

[See also: Congressman Don Bacon: “Joe Biden does only enough to ensure the Ukrainians can keep a gridlock”]

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