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A breakdown of the chaos going on in the House

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. To Congress now, where the House still has no speaker. It has been more than two weeks since the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and Republicans are still divided over who should lead the chamber instead. In the meantime, all legislative business in the House has stalled. Norm Ornstein is here to talk more about that. He's a senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute and has been writing about Congress for decades. I don't know how you stay sane, Norm. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NORM ORNSTEIN: Great to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. There's so...

ORNSTEIN: Many decades.

CHANG: Many, many decades. There's so much going on in the world right now. I mean, we just heard about the war between Israel and Hamas. But can you just put this moment in perspective for us. How bad is it for the country to be without a speaker of the House?

ORNSTEIN: Really, really bad at this particular moment. I mean, you know, there are times when the House is away, it's on recess, when, you know, Americans wouldn't notice. But when we have a war in Ukraine that is a danger to stability in the world and even more to us and our fundamental values, you have this conflict in the Middle East that could easily spread and that obviously is just horrific, we have the prospect ahead of a government shutdown and many other big problems - to have the House paralyzed as it is and the signal that it sends to the rest of the world, there's nothing good about it.

CHANG: You lay out so many challenges, but what is your No. 1 concern as we get further and further into this? What is the most significant consequence to you?

ORNSTEIN: I think the immediate question is whether we're going to be - continue to be able to provide aid to Ukraine and to Israel. But remember that we basically punted on a government shutdown.

CHANG: Right.

ORNSTEIN: That is looming into November. And if we do not have a House that's able to resolve some of these spending issues, we could get a full-scale shutdown - a shutdown that would have deleterious consequences for all Americans, but also for our national security.

CHANG: Absolutely.

ORNSTEIN: So it's not that, you know, you can immediately bring back the House, get a speaker and resolve it right away. But if we don't have a House that can begin to hash through some of these things in the few weeks remaining, we could really end up in a bad place - a place even worse than where we are now.

CHANG: Can we talk about the politics of the urgency of the moment? Because, as you said, there is aid on the line. President Biden has pledged support for Israel, and his promises will require billions in aid from Congress. But that can't happen - right? - until the House elects a speaker. Why do you think this crisis in the Middle East has still not galvanized House Republicans enough to reach a consensus on who should be the next speaker?

ORNSTEIN: You know, this is not a new problem for House Republicans or for the Republican Party more generally, Ailsa. You know, if you go back, John Boehner came in as speaker in 2010, lasted four years, quit before he was going to be ousted. He ended up being replaced by Paul Ryan, who lasted four years, who resigned from Congress before he was going to either suffer an enormous headache or be ousted. Kevin McCarthy takes 15 ballots, doesn't even get through a single term. There is a deep division here in a party that's no longer a traditional or conventional political party. It's a narrow majority, which means that the lunatic fringe can dominate, and they're trying to do it all on their own. But it's a larger group of nihilists who are basically hamstringing this party right now, and they see larger consequences here. But, you know, let's be frank as well - there are plenty of them who are perfectly fine to have a paralyzed House, because if the government shuts down, that's one of their goals.

CHANG: Well, is that your sense? I mean, we've seen this chamber, over the long view, work right up to the time limit. Do you think the House will have a new speaker in time to fund the government and avoid a shutdown?

ORNSTEIN: I suspect that they will. I think what's likely to happen now - you know, they've been through these two votes on Jim Jordan - singularly unqualified to be the leader of the House of Representatives. And he's lost support - no more votes today. They're going to come back and probably empower the acting speaker, the speaker pro tem, Patrick McHenry, to have more ability to have the House at least function for another 30 days or 45 days, and then they'll continue to work it through. There are others waiting in the wings who don't alienate any of the various factions within the House Republican Party - people like Tom Emmer of Minnesota, as one example - who may well emerge. But it's going to take them a while longer to make this happen. To have it happen and to see the world watch us in this state, while the world itself is going through these crises, is painful.

CHANG: Indeed. That is Norm Ornstein, senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. Thank you so much, Norm.

ORNSTEIN: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "STILL TRILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.