Chaos in the U.S. Congress, Republicans unable to elect a speaker

Eva Deschamps / January 5, 2023

This had not happened in 100 years: the elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives were unable to elect a president during a session in Congress, plunged into uncertainty by strong tensions in the Republican ranks.


The great favourite to replace Nancy Pelosi, the fifty-year-old Kevin McCarthy had not managed after three successive votes to calm the rebellion emanating from a group of Trumpists who consider him too moderate. The elected officials agreed to suspend their votes while they negotiated behind the scenes.


The Republicans, who took the majority in the lower house in the November elections, had promised to use their new counter-power by opening a series of investigations into U.S. President Joe Biden.


But the launch of such hostilities is paralyzed by these internal quarrels: the elected members of the House of Representatives cannot officially take the oath of office, and thus open any investigation, as long as a president has not been designated.


Donald Trump criticized at the end of the day a "superfluous agitation" within a party whose nomination he hopes to win back the White House in 2024.


The election of the "speaker", the third most important figure in American politics after the president and the vice-president, requires a majority of 218 votes. A threshold that Kevin McCarthy did not manage to reach, a score of Trumpist elected officials having decided to play the spoilsport.


"We should not take it personally, but the future of our country depends on it," said Chip Roy, a turbulent elected official from Texas.


McCarthy's candidacy is widely supported within his party, however, and the announcement of his nomination on Tuesday on the House floor was met with a large standing ovation among Republicans.


By the beginning of the third round, some annoyance was beginning to build, with more moderate Republicans urging their colleagues to rally around Kevin McCarthy. "We came here to get things done," pleaded Republican leader Steve Scalise, to which Democrats countered with laughter.


Throughout this process, Joe Biden's party has since rallied around the candidacy of Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, regularly applauding the New York City politician with "Hakeem, Hakeem, Hakeem!


But Jeffries does not have enough votes to win the House either.


Electing a Speaker of the House of Representatives could be a matter of hours... or weeks: in 1856, Congress only agreed after two months and 133 rounds.


Kevin McCarthy seems to want to pledge to this conservative fringe to prevent history from stuttering: in 2015, he had already narrowly failed to become Speaker of the House of Representatives in the face of a right-wing party slingshot.


But he can't afford to go too far and alienate moderate Republicans.


Although his room for manoeuvre is limited, he has no credible competitor at the moment. Only the name of Ohio's Jim Jordan is circulating as a possible alternative, but his chances do not seem serious.


With Republicans in the majority in the House, Joe Biden and the Democrats will not be able to pass any new major projects.


But with the Senate in Democratic hands, neither will their rivals.


Will they retreat into systematic opposition? That would require them to come together as a block, with some of their elected officials - as in the budget vote before Christmas - voting with the Democrats.


The election of the speaker is therefore also a measure of their ability to undermine the president.


Facing a hostile House could prove to be a political boon for Joe Biden, if he confirms his intention to run for re-election in 2024 -- a decision he is expected to announce early this year.


The president has been careful not to comment on Republican dissent, with spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre assuring that the Democratic leader would not "interfere in this process.


In the event of legislative paralysis, he will undoubtedly blame the stalemate on weakened Republicans, hoping to turn the situation to his advantage.

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