With the House still paralyzed in the absence of a speaker, the idea of giving Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry more power to conduct normal business is picking up growing bipartisan support.
A number of Republicans have been pushing to let the North Carolina lawmaker bring bills to the floor in order to keep the chamber functioning while the party works through its infighting. Now at least a handful of moderate Democrats are getting behind the concept as well, especially as it becomes clear that the GOP’s latest speaker nominee, Jim Jordan, faces an uphill battle.
“I think they’re going to go down in flames on that [vote] because there’s just no way that Jim Jordan, with Donald Trump’s support, gets to 217 or 218 votes in the House,” Rep. Wiley Nickel, D-N.C., told Semafor in an interview Sunday.
Wiley is backing a plan that would temporarily expand McHenry’s authority in the House for 15-day increments, and direct him to only bring legislation to the floor that would avoid a government shutdown in November, provide aid to Israel and Ukraine, and deal with the remaining 2024 appropriations bills. Wiley, along with three other Democratic members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, penned a letter to McHenry last week requesting a meeting to discuss the possibility.
They’re also asking McHenry be allowed to introduce so-called suspension bills — which are allowed to head straight to the House floor — “evenly distributed” between Democratic and Republican priorities, to avoid legislation being held up in the GOP-led Rules Committee. Some members have talked about using suspension bills as a route to push through key to-do list items such as the stalled National Defense Authorization Act.
The 10 members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of self-proclaimed “pragmatic” Democrats, also endorsed the proposal. Meanwhile, Republicans led by Rep. Dave Joyce, R-Ohio are pushing their own resolution that would empower the interim speaker to advance legislation for a period of up to 90 days. Notably, ex-Speaker Kevin McCarthy has endorsed granting McHenry full powers of the speakership while the House looks for a permanent leader.
Giving McHenry more power is being presented as a temporary fallback measure if Jordan can’t sew up a win this week. But it could also be a gateway to Speaker McHenry. Hear me out.
McCarthy’s ousting came as a surprise, even to those who have long anticipated it, because for all its manufactured chaos, Congress doesn’t do well with abrupt changes. So it wouldn’t surprise me if an incremental change in McHenry’s powers morphs into a longstanding position for the North Carolina Republican.
In fact, some New York Republicans are already floating the idea that Congress doesn’t need to vote and McHenry already has the powers.
“The authority and responsibility to do so is inherent in the title,” Rep. Nick LaLota, R-N.Y., told Semafor. “The position’s post-9/11 description, done in contemplation of continuity of government, makes this obvious to me and many others. You don’t need to have graduated from Hofstra Law to come to that conclusion.”
McHenry would bring some obvious strengths as speaker, which is why his name already circulated as a potential fallback candidate. As the chair of the Financial Services Committee, he already has tremendous fundraising capabilities. He’s credited for having played an instrumental role helping to pass Donald Trump’s marquee legislation, including the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, in his job at the time as chief deputy whip, which earned him respect across the GOP conference. He also has a working relationship across the aisle, thanks partly to the debt limit and shutdown talks.
“He takes his responsibilities as a legislator and to the institution seriously,” Rep. Deborah Ross, D-N.C., who served with McHenry in the North Carolina state legislature, told Semafor. “He cares a lot about the state of North Carolina. I have a cordial relationship with him.”
McHenry began his political career as a GOP “firebrand” who opposed working with Democrats during a coalition government when the North Carolina state legislature was evenly divided, Ross noted.
“But when he got to Congress, I think he learned that in order to get what you want, you learn how to get along with people,” Ross said of McHenry.
Still, there are plenty of other names being talked up as potential speakers, if Jordan’s run collapses. Reps. Tom Cole, R-Okla. Mike Johnson, R-La. and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. are being mentioned as potential leaders. Majority Whip Tom Emmer’s name has frequently come up as well, though opposition from Trump’s allies could complicate his bid.
Room for Disagreement
Not all members are sold on the idea of supercharging McHenry’s duties. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. told Semafor he wants to be “very careful” with vesting McHenry with more authority for fear it could be questioned in court later. Meanwhile, Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., who leads the New Democrat Coalition, told Semafor she would prefer to pursue a bipartisan deal to elect a permanent speaker first. “Given world events, it’s important for American diplomacy, it’s important for American democracy around the world for Congress to be up and running at full strength as soon as possible,” she said.
Joseph Zeballos-Roig contributed reporting.