WASHINGTON (AP) — When Rep. Patrick McHenry took the House speaker’s gavel for the first time, he slammed it down with such force at adjournment that it gained viral internet attention as the defining image of a House in turmoil.
But since his abrupt appointment as speaker pro tempore last week following the unprecedented ouster of Kevin McCarthy from the top spot, the North Carolina Republican has wielded the gavel with extreme care, making no attempts to test the limits of his unusual role.
Day after day, McHenry, in his signature bow tie, follows a standard routine — gaveling the House into session, receiving a prayer from the chaplain and having a lawmaker recite the Pledge of Allegiance, before quickly gaveling out again. In doing so, he is technically keeping the House active but in a suspended state as both parties wait for Republicans to reach consensus on who will be the next new speaker.
But as the House nears a second week stuck on pause, and Republicans struggle to unite around a candidate, many lawmakers are growing antsy. Some Republicans are urging McHenry to interpret his powers more broadly, if that’s what it takes to get the House working again, even if it means setting a new precedent that could ripple down through congressional history.
“We are in uncharted waters, but it’s also very clear that we do not want to have a speaker pro tem who is leading policy. That’s not the role,” said Rep. Zach Nunn, R-Iowa. “But there is also not a need for the American people’s voice to be silenced because Congress can’t function.”
McHenry has been tight-lipped about how he views his role as the speaker pro tempore, trying to push Republicans towards uniting behind a speaker. During a closed-door Republican meeting Thursday night where Majority Leader Steve Scalise withdrew his nomination for speaker, McHenry joked with lawmakers that he would lock them in a room and withhold food and water until they united behind a leader, according to Rep. Marc Molinaro, who was in the room.
“That's the goal,” McHenry said earlier Thursday when asked if he would put a vote for speaker on the House floor.
As an unelected leader, McHenry is navigating a political crisis without precedent in U.S. history. House Republicans are gridlocked with no end in sight, a war is escalating in Israel and Palestine and the U.S. government is ticking closer to a shutdown. The 10-term lawmaker, who is a close McCarthy ally, is trying to both soothe tempers in the Republican conference while dealing with mounting pressure to act to show America’s global strength.
“There is some thought that in the interest of national security — because we’re in a dangerous time and we have to get a national security aid package to Israel — that we could somehow empower McHenry to have more authorities,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee.
McCaul is pushing for action on a bipartisan resolution to express support for Israel. Under normal circumstances, such legislation, which bears no weight of law, would pass easily. But McCaul and others have had to contemplate arcane legislative procedures just to push it to the floor, underscoring just how dysfunctional the House has become.
Some Republicans are pushing for McHenry to bring the Israel resolution to the House floor, arguing that it is within his scope of powers because the resolution has no force of law.
Others say McHenry's powers shouldn't stop there.
One group of centrist GOP lawmakers, led by Ohio Republican Rep. David Joyce, is preparing a resolution that would explicitly grant McHenry some power to bring legislation to the floor, endowing his role with new and defined authority.
“What’s taking place in the world — it’s important that we take time to empower the present speaker who’s there under rules that were never really officially developed,” said Joyce earlier this week.
McHenry was named to the role of speaker pro tempore by McCarthy as part of a process established in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Never before used, the system was designed as a way to keep Congress functioning if leaders and lawmakers were killed or incapacitated. When he became speaker, McCarthy drafted a list of who should succeed him should something happen — and McHenry's name was at the very top.
But the crisis now facing the House is hardly what was envisioned — the office of speaker left vacant not due to death or incapacitation, but due to intense infighting within the House majority that has made governance next to impossible.
While Joyce is pushing to empower McHenry for a period of up to 90 days during which a speaker pro tempore would be empowered to advance legislation, it is not clear whether Republicans could unite around even a temporary leader.
Hardline conservatives and mainstream Republicans alike said Thursday they wanted to stay focused on electing a new speaker, and many are likely to resist handing McHenry more authority.
Democrats, meanwhile, have argued that McHenry's role was created for the sole purpose of electing a new speaker, on guard against a new precedent in the House that they fear could someday be abused.
Rep. Jim McGovern, the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee, posted on social media that McHenry's “job is to guide the House toward the election of a new Speaker. That’s it.”
But outside the Capitol, experts in congressional law say Congress has the power to follow or violate its own rules, especially when there is no precedent for the current situation. House rules can essentially be overruled with support from a majority of members.
“Congress has the power to do what it wants here,” said Josh Chafetz, a professor of law and politics at Georgetown Law School.
It's an argument that may catch on in the House as lawmakers grow restless with their inability to act.
Republicans were left flummoxed after Scalise withdrew his nomination Thursday after spending the day in closed-door meetings trying to overcome opposition from hardline conservatives.
“It’s really frustrating. I want to be here every day getting work done,” said Rep. Jen Kiggans, a Virginia Republican, earlier Thursday. “And we’re not getting work done.”