National Security, Veterans Hurt by Impasse over House Speaker, Lawmakers Warn

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., leaves the House floor after it adjourned for the night
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., leaves the House floor after it adjourned for the night, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A prolonged standoff over choosing the next speaker of the House is harming national security and veterans, a group of Republican lawmakers with military experience who support Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., for the job is warning.

Without a speaker, House members can't be sworn in. That means committees can't organize to conduct oversight of federal agencies such as the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs; members can't get intelligence briefings; and their ability to help constituents, such as veterans who need help accessing benefits, is constrained.

"We cannot do our jobs to ensure veterans are getting the care and benefits that they are due," Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the expected next chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said at a news conference Wednesday evening.

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    "Without a speaker, our committee can't conduct vital important oversight of the implementation of the PACT Act," he added, referring to the massive expansion of benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances Congress approved last year.

    Since the opening of the 118th Congress on Tuesday, the House has taken six votes for speaker, the first time in a century that it has taken more than one ballot to elect a speaker, and more votes are possible Thursday.

    With Republicans now in the majority in the House, McCarthy, who had been the GOP leader when the party was in the minority, has been struggling to get the support of hard-liners in his party who have been demanding he agree to rule changes that dilute the power of the speaker. McCarthy reportedly gave into many of their demands on Wednesday night, but it's unclear whether that will sway enough members for him to win, with at least five lawmakers labeling themselves "never McCarthy."

    If all 434 members vote, McCarthy can lose no more than four GOP votes to win.

    As the impasse drags on, concerns about the national security implications are growing.

    At Wednesday's news conference, attended by more than a dozen lawmakers with military experience who support McCarthy, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said he was forced to cancel a briefing on the Indo-Pacific region with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley because the House is in limbo.

    "We've seen what happens over the last two years when deterrence fails, when weakness invites aggression," said Gallagher, whom McCarthy tapped to lead a new committee on China. "It's up to this Congress to restore deterrence, to restore peace through strength. But we aren't able to do that vital work until we actually get past the speaker vote, populate our committees and start getting to work."

    Planned GOP probes into the Biden administration, including an investigation into the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, have also been stalled by the delay in selecting a speaker.

    GOP Reps. Mike McCaul of Texas, Mike Rogers of Alabama and Mike Turner of Ohio, the expected next chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Intelligence committees, respectively, separately released a statement Thursday warning about the national security effects of the speakership fight. McCaul has been expected to lead the Afghanistan investigation as Foreign Affairs chairman.

    "The Biden administration is going unchecked and there is no oversight of the White House, State Department, Department of Defense or the intelligence community," McCaul, Rogers and Turner said. "We cannot let personal politics place the safety and security of the United States at risk."

    Democrats, who have appeared to revel in the GOP disarray with digs on social media and speeches on the floor about their party's unity, have also started to sound the alarm about national security being harmed by the prolonged speakership battle.

    "We have to look at this for the outrage and the danger that it is," House Minority Whip Katherine Clark, D-Mass., said at a news conference Thursday. "This is more than some internal squabbling over who in the GOP conference likes or doesn't like Kevin McCarthy. This is about your responsibility to organize government. It is fundamental to who we are as members of Congress. And not only at these high levels of national security."

    Day-to-day tasks like constituent services, which often includes helping veterans navigate the VA, are also limited because lawmakers haven't been sworn in. Lawmakers have offered no specific examples of constituents struggling to get help amid the impasse, but have raised concern about the possibility.

    "There could be a point at which it does mean something to the constituents that we serve, whether we can engage in casework on their behalf and help individuals navigate the federal bureaucracy back at home," House Democratic Caucus Chair Peter Aguilar, D-Calif., said at a news conference Wednesday.

    -- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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