Oct 15, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Dems warm to empowering McHenry as GOP chaos persists

House Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Democrats are beginning to seriously entertain the notion of helping enable Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) to pass critical legislation, a potential short-term fix as GOP infighting continues to paralyze the House.

Why it matters: The House is nearing two weeks without a permanent speaker and faces a Nov. 17 deadline to pass federal funding before the government shuts down.

  • Republicans have struggled to replace former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), with Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) dropping out last week after failing to persuade more than two dozen holdouts.
  • The House GOP on Friday voted to nominate Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), but a subsequent vote showed that 55 Republicans won't support him on the floor — more than enough to sink him.

The big picture: The desire to legislate goes well beyond government funding, with lawmakers desperate to address the escalating Israel-Hamas war, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and record high U.S.-Mexico border crossings.

Driving the news: Four moderate Democrats led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, sent a letter to McHenry on Friday proposing a vote to "expand the Speaker Pro Tempore's authorities."

  • In exchange for empowering McHenry for 15-day increments, they wrote, he would guarantee votes on government funding bills and aid packages for Ukraine and Israel.
  • The Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 10 centrist Democrats, quickly endorsed the measure.
  • "The Republicans tied themselves into a Gordian knot," Blue Dog co-chair Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez (D-Wash.) told Axios in a statement. "I don't see how they get untangled. But if they come and ask Democrats for help, I'm sure we can find a way to cut through it together."

What they're saying: "I'm certainly in the category of members who want to get to a place, as quickly as possible, where we can finally govern in a bipartisan way," Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio) told Axios of empowering McHenry.

  • Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a member of Democratic leadership, said there is "interest on both sides in a bipartisan path forward" and that "it's increasingly likely that, at some point, there will have to be a bipartisan agreement."

Zoom in: Kildee said there would need to be "some limitations" on what Congress could do under this arrangement — specifically not allowing Republicans to pursue party-line GOP legislation.

  • "Democrats are not interested in just rescuing the Republicans from their own problems and have them go right back to business as usual as it was under McCarthy," he said.

What we're hearing: A senior House Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there has been "back and forth between members" about the idea, but nothing that "equates to negotiation at the leadership level, because it's a little confusing with whom we would negotiate."

  • "A couple different scenarios" have been discussed by Democrats as to how to keep McHenry in check, the lawmaker said — such as only allowing bills to pass with a two-thirds majority, thus guaranteeing that widely supported measures are the ones brought to the floor.
  • But there are potential snags: more contentious issues like border security would be tough, and Republicans may revolt in a scenario in which Democrats are providing the bulk of the votes to pass measures.
  • "It's really easy to say it in concept, it's a lot harder to deliver in reality," the Democrat said. "It's just whether they're willing to sell their hardliners down the river."

The other side: A group of Republican moderates has been pushing to empower McHenry since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war last weekend, with Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) circulating a legislative proposal to lawmakers in both parties.

  • "Israel is at war and at home we have raging inflation and a border crisis," Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) told Axios. "We are in extraordinary times and need to get back to governing."

Yes, but: McHenry himself has adopted the most limited interpretation of his role — that he's simply meant to oversee the election of a new speaker.

  • "It's a ministerial role, he was pretty clear he's not comfortable with" expanded powers, said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.).
  • Some Republicans are also skeptical of Democrats' motives, with one arguing their embrace of McHenry is because they are "afraid of Jordan."

The bottom line: "The question is, how far are the Republicans ... going to go along with this pattern before we start serious conversations?" said Kildee.

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