Wed. Apr 17th, 2024

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Jim Jordan can’t even get his plan to suspend his bid for Speaker and empower a temporary House chief to succeed. Beyond the Ohio Republican, the failure of the House GOP to settle on a leader shows what happens when a party surrenders an ideological rudder for one driven by personalities, petty grievances, and petulance.

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The conservative troublemaker on Thursday unexpectedly reversed course, calling off a third try at reaching 217 votes to give him the Speaker’s gavel, and said he would be fine with Rep. Patrick McHenry staying in the role of acting Speaker through the end of the year. That stopgap fix would allow the House to pass spending bills to keep the government open beyond the mid-November deadline and leave Jordan with some more time to persuade the 20-and-growing opponents to his Speakership that he is the least-bad option available to them.

But a blend of mainstream conservatives and MAGA Republicans rejected that option, saying the Speaker role is not a consolation prize. Republicans don’t favor the stopgap patch to stand in for an actual governing agenda, even as they universally say McHenry is a solid colleague. Jordan, leaving the closed-door session, said he would renew his effort at a third vote to give him the gavel. The timing was, like so much in the House, unclear.

The House now stands leaderless for the longest time since before Watergate. Without a Speaker, the House can do almost nothing, and the standstill is leaving lawmakers across the spectrum starting to worry that constituents back home may realize their representatives in Washington are not up to the task of even the most basic governing functions. The worry is real. The way out is not.

Since Donald Trump put his marker on the party, Republicans have faced versions of this struggle. The burn-it-down fringe that emerged in the early hours of Barack Obama’s presidency has moved to the center of the power dynamics, and the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus—of which Jordan was a founding chairman—now finds a hub near the fulcrum of most Republican choices. The GOP cannot write these voices off as they once could, and these forces have driven shutdowns, failed nominations, withdrawn compromises, even diplomatic faux pas. The fact that a slim Republican majority in the House cannot even decide who will be atop their pecking order says so much about the party’s priorities. They aren’t looking at a leadership team who can govern a coalition so much as a winner of a brutal GOP version of The Hunger Games.

Republicans don’t have a way out of this mess at the moment. The Thursday afternoon session emerged with one consensus, and that was that there was no consensus. Jordan cannot get to 217 votes from Republicans, and it’s increasingly clear that no one else can, either. Until and unless Republicans blink, the standoff will continue. There is no appetite for a stopgap leader, and Jordan’s effort at promoting that option probably hurt more than it helped. Jordan is now seen as a toxic opportunist, any moderating forces are seen as sellouts, and mainstream Republicans are just left standing in hallways asking themselves, reporters, and consultants how long this brinkmanship can go. So far, it’s been two weeks of paralysis and the folks creating the mess seem willing to wait. 

Ultimately, Washington will need to snap out of this stubborn streak or it will break itself. The search for ideological and identity-based purity is one that has led Republicans to trap themselves in a cul-de-sac without a map. Party leaders aren’t stepping in, activists are trying to sabotage any compromise, and donors are left on the outside wondering just what this mess will cost. The GOP has been heading toward this crisis for years. It has finally arrived at a fork in the track. And, for the moment, those with votes in the matter seem unsure which direction is the least bad way to turn.

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