The US’s closest ally in the Middle East is reeling from what many call its “9/11” and now a humanitarian disaster looms in Gaza. Winter is approaching in Ukraine, which needs urgent supplies to maintain its counteroffensive against Russia. From China’s expansive ambitions, to coups in Africa, to the climate crisis, the world is crying out for leadership.
But on Capitol Hill in Washington, Republicans can’t find one. Friday marked the 10th day of paralysis as the party struggles to elect a speaker of the House of Representatives to replace the ousted Kevin McCarthy. This after majority leader Steve Scalise won a closed-door vote but abandoned his run because he lacked enough support to win on the House floor.
Such petty bickering, grievances and vendettas might typically fascinate seasoned Washington watchers and readers of political insider newsletters but be met by a shrug by many Americans and indifference overseas. This time, however, is different. The ripples of Republican dysfunction could soon be felt across a troubled world.
“It’s a dangerous game that we’re playing,” Michael McCaul, chairman of the House foreign affairs committee, told reporters on Thursday. “It just proves our adversaries right that democracy doesn’t work. Our adversaries are watching us and Israel is watching. They need our help.”
McCaul, a Republican congressman from Texas, has put forward a bipartisan resolution with Gregory Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the committee, condemning Hamas and reaffirming support for Israel. But the House cannot vote on it until there is a speaker in the chair.
McCaul added: “I’m going to remind my colleagues about how dangerous this is. If we don’t have a speaker, we can’t assist Israel in this great time of need after this terrorist attack. So I think we’re playing with fire and we need to stop playing games and politics with this and vote a speaker in.”
The House speaker is the third-highest-ranking elected official in the country, second in line to the presidency. Without one, legislative business is at a standstill. The House is currently under the control of Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, who was named as the temporary speaker after McCarthy’s departure, but his ability to move legislation is unclear.
Joe Biden said on Tuesday that he would seek approval from Congress for additional funding for Israel in the wake of the devastating attack by Hamas. But the fight over the speakership puts a question mark over how soon such aid could be approved and sent.
Biden has also requested $24bn in additional funding for Ukraine but this too hangs in limbo. Although the White House has claimed that the vast majority of House Republicans still support such assistance, there has been growing dissent in recent weeks and the issue was a factor in McCarthy’s downfall.
Then there is the threat of a government shutdown that would further dent US credibility overseas. Congress has until a self-imposed deadline of 17 November to pass 12 new bills to fund the government for the rest of the year and into 2024. The leadership vacuum is sucking up precious time and energy and making a shutdown more likely.
Biden had spent the first two years of his presidency seeking to restore order and rebuild alliances after the “America first” mayhem of the Donald Trump years. But when Republicans gained control of the House in January with a narrow majority that empowered the far right, that effort was always likely to suffer erosion.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters: “What we’re seeing is certainly shambolic chaos over there on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, and they need to get their act together … We’ve never seen a conference behave this way or be this chaotic.”
Biden’s speech on Tuesday was described as one of the most powerful statements of support for Israel ever given by a US president; he has previously spoken of his deep-rooted love for the country. Huge uncertainties remain: Israel has ordered a million people to evacuate northern Gaza ahead of an expected ground invasion; Hamas could still have more surprises in store; Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia based in Lebanon, could still open a second front.
But instead of addressing the crisis with one voice, Republicans are consumed with a bogus impeachment inquiry into Biden and the publicity-seeking antics of members such as Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Nancy Mace. And this week New York Republicans moved to expel accused fraudster George Santos.
Kyle Herrig, executive director of the Congressional Integrity Project, said: “Since day one the Maga Republicans in the House majority have failed to work on real domestic priorities and instead focused on partisan stunts in their extreme efforts to return Donald Trump to the White House.
“Their ongoing dysfunction, misplaced priorities and failures now impede the efforts of President Biden to come to the aid of key allies internationally. Chaos, not governance, defines the House Republican Caucus.”