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Why House Democrats May Back Patrick McHenry as a Temporary Speaker

6 minute read

When a handful of House Republicans decided to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Democrats refused to save him. Now, after more than two weeks of Republicans trying and failing to fill the leadership vacuum, Democrats are considering putting their support behind the lawmaker many view as the best bad option: Patrick McHenry.

As Rep. Jim Jordan, a firebrand conservative from Ohio, lost a second speakership vote on the House floor Wednesday, members of both parties seemed more amenable to granting more powers to McHenry, a bowtie-wearing North Carolina Republican who has served as an interim Speaker since McCarthy’s removal.

On Tuesday, Rep. Mike Kelly, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced a resolution to elect McHenry as Speaker Pro Tempore until a new speaker is elected or until November 17, the day government funding is set to expire. Rep. David Joyce, an Ohio Republican, announced plans to introduce a similar resolution Wednesday. 

McHenry, who was first elected to Congress in 2004, has effectively served for most of October as the House's caretaker, overseeing the chamber but with little power to do much but facilitate votes to elect a new Speaker. He secured the post as a close ally of McCarthy, who wrote his name on a secret succession list.

“That’s not something I’m seeking, I’m not asking for it right now,” he said Wednesday according to CNN when asked about the plan to grant him more power. 

Asked if he’d take the role, he replied, “If, there’s always if.”

Though Democrats are hesitant to talk specifically about a McHenry candidacy, they appear open to the plan. 

“All options on the table,” House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters outside the House floor when asked Wednesday morning about the possibility of empowering McHenry. “We have two objectives: Stop Jim Jordan, who is a clear and present danger to our democracy, and reopen the government in a bipartisan way with reasonable people in charge.”

Asked what timeline he would support if there is a Speaker Pro Tem, Jeffries replied, “We'll have to evaluate that.”

Democrats who spoke to TIME on Wednesday deferred to Jeffries on strategy, echoing his commitment to a “bipartisan path.” They were neutral to positive in their attitudes toward McHenry.

“I hear that he will be a listener,” says Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas when asked about McHenry, though she emphasized that she’s still pushing for Jeffries to become Speaker.

Rep. Ro Khanna of California, like Jeffries, says he is open to all possibilities. He also thinks well of McHenry. 

“I have a good relationship,” Khanna says. “He’s reasonable in engaging the other side and cordial.” 

McHenry got an early start in politics, winning a Republican primary for a North Carolina House seat while still in college. Though he lost the general election, he was eventually elected to the state House. After working on the Bush campaign and in the Department of Labor, he became the youngest member of Congress nearly twenty years ago.

He started out as “a conservative bomb thrower,” according to the Raleigh News & Observer, slamming Democrats and drawing criticism for posting footage of a visit to Iraq, for getting into fights over procedure with Democratic former Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, and for accusing Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts of lying in a committee hearing. But he mellowed out over time.

“I was able to get more done when I slowed down and had respect for others,” McHenry told the paper in 2017. “That took me three years of really making mistakes in order to figure out the better way to get things done.”

McHenry, now chair of the Financial Services Committee, previously served in Leadership as House Republican Chief Deputy Whip. On January 6, 2021, he declined to side with former President Donald Trump and most members of his party to overturn the 2020 election. That is a decision that separates McHenry from McCarthy, as well as the two leading candidates for Speaker, Jordan and Steve Scalise, all three of whom were among the 147 Republicans in Congress who voted to overturn election results that day in support of Trump’s false claims that he had won.

There are few specifics available about exactly what powers McHenry would have if members opted to elect him Speaker Pro Tempore. But some members of Congress are getting anxious as a House without a Speaker is unable to take up pressing matters, including aid for Israel and Ukraine that the Biden administration is expected to propose as part of a larger funding measure in the coming days.

Republicans don’t appear to have another viable option. Though Jordan was able to win over some members on Wednesday who had voted against him a day earlier, he lost more, with 22 members of his own party voting for other candidates. Several of the holdouts dug in their heels Wednesday afternoon. 

“Steve Scalise is an honorable man and has earned my vote for Speaker,” wrote Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, the chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, in a post on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. “This was a vote of conscience and I stayed true to my principles. Intimidation and threats will not change my position.”

After the failed Jordan vote on Wednesday, House Republicans had no plans to hold a conference meeting and no additional votes were expected that day. That left Democrats stuck in a holding pattern. 

“We've told our caucus to stay tuned, we may have to reconvene to have a discussion,” Jeffries told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

Jordan and his team signaled he would continue to pursue the Speakership, though his bid looked increasingly doomed. According to Axios, Jordan also wanted to hold a vote on the McHenry resolution Wednesday morning while simultaneously whipping members against it, a claim his spokesperson denied. 

Unfortunately for Jordan, support for the McHenry resolution among the GOP is growing. 

“As we work within the Republican Conference to elect a permanent Speaker, I support empowering Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry on an interim basis,” wrote Rep. Marc Molinaro of New York in a statement posted on X after voting for Jordan. “Time is a luxury we do not have and this will allow us to get back to governing.” 

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