Power vacuum leaves fall agenda in limbo

By Geof Koss, Manuel Quiñones, Hannah Northey, Daniel Bush | 10/09/2015 06:55 AM EDT

The chaotic turn of events that engulfed Capitol Hill yesterday is casting a pall over the fall agenda, as the clock ticks on big-ticket items such as raising the debt limit and heading off a government shutdown in December.

The chaotic turn of events that engulfed Capitol Hill yesterday is casting a pall over the fall agenda, as the clock ticks on big-ticket items such as raising the debt limit and heading off a government shutdown in December.

Less than an hour after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) shocked his colleagues by announcing he was withdrawing his bid to replace Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as speaker, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called for GOP leaders to immediately bring a "clean" debt ceiling increase to the floor in both chambers, which he noted would "certainly" pass with bipartisan backing.

"Republican chaos is likely to get worse before it gets better but the economic livelihood of the American people should not be threatened as a result of Republicans’ inability to govern," Reid said in a statement.


Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the vice chairman of the Democratic conference, this week said estimates that the debt limit will need to be raised by Nov. 5 add impetus to efforts to reach a budget deal before Boehner steps down at the end of October.

"They’re playing with fire," he said of House Republicans who are skeptical of the urgency of that date.

While Boehner’s pledge to remain as speaker until a replacement is elected raises the possibility that he could stick around past October, members of both parties cautioned his continued presence may not make it any easier to negotiate a budget deal.

"I hope that John Boehner is in power to get this done," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of policy and communications for House Democrats, to reporters yesterday. "It seems to me this is such a monumental distraction that’s going to be hard to get the focus."

Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) offered a similar assessment.

"I think it makes it more difficult" to reach a budget deal by December, he said.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), a senior House appropriator, said he expects the House GOP caucus to huddle after the recess to discuss how to proceed on the debt limit and appropriations.

"I think we have to reach a consensus within our conference," he told reporters yesterday.

In a sign of the hurdles ahead for a budget deal, Rep. Bill Flores of Texas, who leads the Republican Study Committee, signaled that conservatives still see the debt limit as an area for negotiations.

"We are not taking our foot off the pedal at all," he told reporters. "We still have a very active operation to try to cast a bold vision for dealing with the debt ceiling. And it looks like the people who are going to deal with that are Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader McCarthy and Whip [Steve] Scalise [R-La.]."

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), also an appropriator, said Boehner’s hand to cut a deal could be strengthened by the power vacuum but warned that budget talks would likely slow.

"It’s going to take us a little while longer to come to grips with this," she said.

It isn’t clear what’s next in the leadership selection process. House GOP lawmakers are scheduled to huddle today at 9 a.m.

With McCarthy stepping aside and choosing to remain as majority leader, there is no obvious candidate to step into the breach. House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who many Republicans describe as one of the few members who could unite the GOP caucus, repeatedly said yesterday that he is determined to stay put.

Energy hopes dwindle

House Democrats yesterday said the leadership conundrum threatened to derail what slivers of bipartisan cooperation were still in play on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the panel’s ranking member, said he wants to move through bipartisan legislation, and members of the energy committee were able to do that the first half of the year, but that’s since fallen apart.

"Now, with this chaos over the leadership I think it’s more difficult to move legislation in general, particularly on a bipartisan basis," Pallone said during an interview. "So I think it’s having an impact, not just on energy, but on all legislation because the Republicans can’t govern or move any legislation or do anything on a bipartisan basis while this chaos continues. It’s just another indication of their inability to govern because the right wing is calling the shots."

Pallone said "mainstream Republicans" who don’t listen to the right wing need to work with Democrats if any bills are to move ahead with bipartisan support, but that’s not happening now.

ClearView Energy Partners LLC yesterday predicted that House Republicans’ disarray would focus congressional leaders’ attention on raising the debt limit and preventing another government shutdown.

"Beyond the essentials, however, majority votes in the House and Senate may be very hard to find — including on energy legislation," the firm said in an email.

Other members of the Energy and Commerce panel were cautiously optimistic.

Democratic Rep. Gene Green of Texas said the House will "roll along" until the end of the month, when Boehner’s resignation becomes effective. At that point, Green said he’s hopeful Republicans can regroup.

"I would hope they’d get their act together, we have a whole lot of issues we need to deal with," Green said. "No one wants to see a meltdown in the House of Representatives."

But Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said he’s not sure the leadership change will affect any energy legislation and is likely to leave his oil exports bill unscathed. That bill, H.R. 702, overcame a procedural hurdle in the House last night and is up for a final vote today (see related story).

"Boehner supports it, McCarthy supports it, Scalise supports it, we’ve got a good group of Democrats that supports it," Barton said.

While the contest for speaker remains in flux, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) yesterday said his state could benefit from having fellow Utahn Jason Chaffetz (R) in the speaker’s chair.

"I’ve said he has a lot of qualities that are very useful and very profitable," Bishop said in an interview. "It would be good for Utah to have a Utahan speaker."

Still, he added, "I’m not telling anybody how I’m voting."

Ex-Im Bank push

Another top priority for many Democrats and Republicans, behind the debt ceiling and budget talks, is reviving the expired charter for the U.S. Export-Import Bank. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Nuclear Energy Institute have been pushing for reauthorization.

Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) has been talking about collecting signatures for a petition to force a House vote on the issue. But many of his Republican colleagues have expressed concerns about such a move.

"I think any time there are problems in the institution, that doesn’t bode well with the institution or progress on bills that are currently pending," said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.).

Larson said pressure from communities may also turn the tide. "It is having an effect on Republicans, and certainly Democrats are solidly behind it," he said.

Green said there would be a bipartisan push today to collect the 218 signatures needed for a discharge petition that would allow a vote to extend the bank’s charter before the end of the month.

"We just need about 30 Republicans to sign it," he said yesterday.

Reporter Corbin Hiar contributed.