OPINION: The House needs a leader, not just a speaker

                        House Majority Leader Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) arrives to make his pitch for House speaker to Republican representatives from Florida on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 10, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

House Majority Leader Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) arrives to make his pitch for House speaker to Republican representatives from Florida on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 10, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON, D.C.— I regret to inform you that this is a column about nothing, because that is what Congress is poised to do this week. Even with a horrific war raging in the Middle East, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and a House without a speaker for the first time in American history, the House and Senate so far have done nothing.

Usually buzzing hallways were silent. “Members only” elevators were empty. The House and Senate floors sat idle, like football fields during summer vacation.

The Senate can possibly be forgiven, since the chamber had a regularly scheduled recess planned for the week. But with rockets falling on Israel, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Tuesday afternoon he would cut his overseas trip short to travel back to Washington to get to work on what’s next.

But the House was a different story, where the chamber gaveled into session Tuesday for just two minutes before going back out of session. On Wednesday it was three.

As members trickled into town after nearly a week away, the first event on the agenda, for Republicans at least, was a late Tuesday meeting to hear from the two men running to replace Kevin McCarthy as House speaker after McCarthy was ousted last week by a band of GOP rebels.

I’d come to Washington Tuesday to see what I thought would be a frenzied effort to elect a new speaker after what happened last week. While the rebels knew they wanted McCarthy gone, they didn’t think ahead to who could get elected next. Most importantly, they also did not seem to contemplate what the House could do without an elected speaker in place, which turns out to be not very much.

Although Patrick McHenry is serving as Speaker Pro Tem after being named to the job by the former speaker, McHenry is not an official speaker. He is not in the line of succession for the presidency, and parliamentary guidance suggests that the only authority he has is to oversee the election of the next House speaker.

Without a speaker , the House will have no votes this week and hold no hearings. They won’t take up the many appropriations bills they were fighting over before they ousted McCarthy, and they may or may not be able to pass a funding bill to support Israel as it goes deeper into war against Hamas.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter told me from his office in the Rayburn Building. The Pooler Republican had been against ousting McCarthy in the first place and is ready to vote for U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise for speaker.

Scalise and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan are the two candidates running to lead the unruly GOP caucus.

If Republicans can’t come to a consensus on a speaker this week, there is no plan for what comes next. Whether McHenry could even bring a bill to aid Israel up for a vote is an untested concept, Carter said, since no majority caucus has ever booted a speaker without someone to replace him. And Carter says there’s no time to waste.

“We all agree that we’ve got to protect Israel and defend Israel. We’re all in agreement on that,’ he said. “We’ve just got some personality problems right now that we’ve got to work through, for the sake of the American people.”

Is he worried they won’t be able to work through those personality problems? In a word, yes. “I am concerned about that because Israel needs our help now,” Carter said.

By Tuesday night, House Republicans were back in town in full force, but it was clear they still weren’t all on the same page about how to proceed.

Leaving the conference where Scalise and Jordan both spoke, U.S. Rep Trey Nehls of Texas summed up Republicans’ math problem.

“A lot of people like Jim and a lot of people like Steve. I just don’t know how the hell you get to 218. I just do not know,” he said.

Different questions had surfaced Monday night at a smaller meeting of the GOP caucus. “A (expletive)-fest,” a House staffer told me of the meeting, where different factions vented about the various moving parts that put House Republicans where they are today.

On Wednesday, members gathered for a secret-ballot vote between the two men. Scalise came away with more than Jordan, but nearly a dozen Republicans vowed after the vote they’ll stay with Jordan. Scalise can only lose four. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

While all of this was unfolding around Washington this week, the televisions mounted on the walls of the press gallery on Capitol Hill blared the headlines the rest of the world was watching. “Rocket fire in Southern Israel” from the MSNBC feed. “BREAKING NEWS: Biden addresses the War in Israel,” from CNN.

NBC News’ Richard Engel yelled over the crash of rocket fire to explain the missiles over his head were repelled by Israel’s sophisticated Iron Dome missile defense system. News reports elsewhere made clear that Israel will need help from the United States Congress soon in order to keep the Iron Dome system operational.

How they’ll get that aid from this currently paralyzed House is entirely unknown.

Years ago, then-House Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat, was up for reelection in his home state of Washington. A lawyer named George Nethercutt ran a surprisingly effective campaign against Foley with the simple slogan, “We need a listener, not a Speaker.” It was a great slogan and Foley lost his race.

In the same way that Foley’s district needed a listener and not a speaker, the entire House of Representatives needs to pick someone whom the GOP caucus can support, but who the country can rely on in a time of crisis, too. And that’s exactly what the United States is facing right now in the Middle East.

If they can’t run a two-man election of their own members, how can they ask to run the country? The House needs more than a speaker this time around . It needs a leader, and soon.