Work on funding foreign, humanitarian aid at standstill amid US house turmoil

Staff members carry American flags back into the office of the Speaker of the House after they were used as a backdrop while former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy spoke after being ousted from the position of speaker on Oct. 3, 2023. [Reuters]

The U.S Congress was at a standstill Wednesday, with its lower house paralyzed by the ousting of Kevin McCarthy as speaker and lawmakers facing a six-week deadline to approve spending bills and avoid a partial government shutdown.

The lack of a functioning House of Representatives and the prospect of losing more days to identify and elect a new speaker leave important spending bills in limbo, including those providing for foreign military financing, international humanitarian aid and efforts to counter China's influence.

Lawmakers in the Republican-majority House are not expected to hold any additional votes this week. Instead, Republicans will discuss who might lead the narrowly divided chamber through a period that will require agreement not only among themselves, but eventually with the Democrat-led Senate before the spending bills can be sent to Democratic President Joe Biden for his signature.

The U.S. government was hours away from a partial shutdown Saturday before McCarthy turned to opposition Democrats to help push through funding to keep the government fully open through mid-November. But a small faction of hard-line conservative Republicans objected to McCarthy's compromise with Democrats and immediately instigated the successful effort to oust him.

Biden, speaking at the White House, urged lawmakers not to wait until the end of the new funding deadline six weeks from now to reach a new spending agreement.

"We cannot and should not again be faced with an 11th-hour decision, brinksmanship that threatens to shut down the government, and we know what we have to do," he said. "And we have to get it done in a timely fashion."

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers began looking for someone to take over for McCarthy.

Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a conservative firebrand known for frequently taunting opposition Democrats, said he would seek the speakership. Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was part of McCarthy's leadership group, also announced his candidacy.

There is no requirement that the House speaker already be a member of the chamber, although by tradition the speaker is an elected lawmaker. But former President Donald Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the 2024 election to reclaim the White House, told reporters, "A lot of people have been calling me about speaker. All I can say is we'll do whatever is best for the country and the Republican Party."

Recent history suggests selecting the new speaker may not be a quick process. McCarthy needed 15 rounds of voting in January to earn the post. He had to make several concessions to conservative holdouts in his party, including a rule that a single lawmaker could call for a vote to remove him as speaker.

Republican Representative Matt Gaetz brought such a motion Monday, expressing frustration in McCarthy's leadership after McCarthy failed to pass a government funding bill last week with conservative spending priorities and then on Saturday relied on Democratic votes to fund the government through mid-November.

The slim Republican majority in the House meant that Gaetz needed only a handful of Republicans to vote along with a unanimous bloc of Democrats to oust McCarthy in the 216-210 vote. All but eight Republicans voted to keep McCarthy as speaker.

It was the first time in U.S. history that House members had voted to remove the speaker.

While eligible to seek the role again, McCarthy announced Tuesday night that he would not seek reelection to the speakership.

"I can continue to fight, maybe in a different manner, and will not run for speaker again," McCarthy told reporters.

As in the recent negotiations on averting a federal government shutdown, the slim Republican majority in the House meant that Democrats had the numbers to influence the vote on McCarthy.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter to Democrats Tuesday morning, Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries urged his caucus to vote to remove McCarthy from the speakership.

"House Democrats remain willing to find common ground on an enlightened path forward. Unfortunately, our extreme Republican colleagues have shown no willingness to do the same. It is now the responsibility of the GOP members to end the House Republican Civil War," Jeffries said in the letter.

McCarthy spoke with Jeffries Monday night. McCarthy said he told Jeffries, "You guys do whatever you need to do. I get politics. I understand where people are. I truly believe, though, in the institution of the House at the end of the day. If you throw a speaker out that has 99% of their conference, that kept government open and paid the troops, I think we're in a really bad place for how we're going to run Congress."