WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives remains leaderless with an intraparty Republican fight over who should be the next speaker overshadowed by Hamas’ brutal attack on close U.S. ally Israel, which quickly escalated into war.
It’s an unprecedented moment that adds urgency to an already challenging week as fractured House Republicans try to agree on who should succeed Kevin McCarthy after they ousted him from power six days ago.
The already tense internal GOP conflict grew more complicated over the weekend when Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on Israel, which has killed more than 700 people, including at least nine Americans. Israel declared war against Hamas, launching strikes in Gaza that have killed hundreds more.
Despite the federal holiday, House Republicans returned to Washington early on Monday night and huddled behind closed doors for more than two hours to discuss the vacancy. But there was no consensus on a replacement.
“We’re kind of like a scattergram. We’re all over the map in terms of a way forward,” Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., a close McCarthy ally, said as he left the meeting. “Some of it is about rules changes, some of it is about hard feelings about what happened” with McCarthy “and wanting to revisit that.”
The full House will return to work on Tuesday. But because the House is operating with no elected speaker, it is effectively paralyzed. It can’t pass emergency military aid for Israel until lawmakers seat a new speaker. In addition, Congress must pass a spending bill to avert a government shutdown by mid-November.
And while the interim speaker, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., participated in an unclassified conference call about the Israel-Palestinian conflict Sunday night, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to get classified briefings in the Capitol this week. (President Joe Biden would need to grant him that authority.)
Given the House leadership void at this crucial moment, McCarthy, R-Calif., who is still a member of Congress, is assuming some roles of his old job. He plans to address reporters at 11 a.m. ET Monday, most likely about Israel, in front of the speaker’s office. He has already accused Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and other opponents of undermining the national security of the U.S. and Israel.
“There is nothing the House can do until they elect a speaker, and I don’t know if that happens quickly,” McCarthy said over the weekend on Fox News.
The outbreak of war in Israel has led some Republicans to call for McCarthy to be reinstated as speaker so the House can function.
“Removing [McCarthy] from office, mid-term, was idiotic. Doing so as Israel faces an all out attack is dangerous. Uncertainty and chaos in the U.S. breeds vulnerability around the world. The House should immediately reinstate McCarthy and stop screwing around,” Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., who opposed the ouster, wrote on social media.
It will be an arduous task for a divided and narrow majority. Republicans need 217 of their 221 members to agree on a new speaker, as they don’t expect any Democratic support.
It’s unclear when the House will hold a floor vote to elect a new speaker. Republicans will first hold a closed-door candidates forum Tuesday. On Wednesday, they expect to hold an internal election. Whether they will have a consensus to head to the floor and elect a speaker the same day remains unknown.
Two major candidates have stepped into the fray: Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the majority leader and No. 2 Republican, and Jim Jordan of Ohio, a right-wing firebrand and key Donald Trump ally who chairs the Judiciary Committee.
At a news conference Monday, McCarthy declined to endorse between Scalise and Jordan and repeatedly kept the door open to returning as speaker.
“That’s a decision by the conference,” he said, adding that he will support its decision. “Unfortunately, the House can do nothing without a speaker.”
He added that if eight members can throw out a speaker for trying to govern, “no one’s going to be successful.”
He referred to those who moved to oust him as “a few individuals” in the caucus “who love a camera more than they love the American public.”
The Senate, meanwhile, is out of session this week. But Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that in light of the attack on Israel, it “will try to hold a classified briefing they can receive in their states as soon as possible so we can get additional details.”
Schumer said in a statement Sunday night that he had urged the Biden administration and Defense Department “to ensure Israel has everything it needs to protect itself and reiterated that the Senate stands ready to deliver on additional needs.”
Scott Wong is a senior congressional reporter for NBC News.
Sahil Kapur is a senior national political reporter for NBC News.
Julie Tsirkin is a correspondent covering Capitol Hill.
Frank Thorp V and Fiona Glissoncontributed.