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Before this week’s historic deposition of California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, few people outside the cloistered world of congressional historians and parliamentary experts likely knew that when a person is elected speaker of the House, they create a secret list of potential replacements to assume the role in cases of emergency or incapacitation. That all changed this week, as Republicans ignominiously — and very publicly — booted McCarthy from GOP leadership, thereby revealing the outgoing speaker had selected longtime ally Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) as his top choice to succeed him.
Officially “speaker pro tempore,” McHenry has emerged from the relative obscurity of the “proverbial smoke-filled rooms where legislative deals could be made” to fill an “uncomfortable and unexpected position” in the public eye — one he’d formerly eschewed, according to Roll Call. Though he’d stepped back from his own path through GOP leadership years earlier, the ten-term congressman now finds himself at the center of an unprecedented nexus of power and controversy, forced to preside over the selection of his requisite replacement from a caucus whose divisions have been on full, frequently unpleasant display. Thrust into the limelight under these fraught circumstances, McHenry’s every move is sure to be scrutinized and dissected as Congress — and the country at large — treads carefully in these uncharted waters.
Will this Republican insider become a pivotal figure at this historic political juncture, or will McHenry serve merely as a transitionary steward, facilitating a leadership change that downplays his own legislative imprimatur?
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After texting with McHenry, North Carolina State Rep. Jason Saine (R-D97), one of the congressman’s constituents, told The Charlotte Observer that while he doesn’t believe McHenry wants to run for the full speakership, he would do so for the sake of “protecting the institution, Congress, the House and making sure that just because there is chaos today, doesn’t mean the chaos will reign supreme.”
For now McHenry “appears to be playing it safe,” The Washington Post reported, noting that his first few acts as interim speaker were to call multiple recesses “for the relative caucus and conferences to meet and discuss the path forward.” In part, that relatively soft touch is a byproduct of the rules under which he must operate, which allow him to “only preside over floor debate and voting about the election” of his replacement, according to former House parliamentarian Charles Johnson. McHenry’s is a position that’s “temporary by the very name of it,” agreed former House historian Ray Smock. Rules aside, however, McHenry’s practical authority may ultimately extend to whatever “the majority party is willing to tolerate,” Georgetown University Government Affairs Institute senior fellow Josh Huder speculated to The New York Times. As Brookings Institution scholar Molly Reynolds explained to Roll Call, McHenry’s apparent reluctance to wield more expansive powers so far “might set the wrong precedent” for others in his situation moving forward, particularly if the transition process “takes longer than the week he’s proposed.”
This isn’t to say that McHenry has been entirely hands-off when it comes to leaving his mark on Congress already. “One of the first actions taken by the new speaker pro tempore was to order me to immediately vacate my office in the Capitol,” former Speaker and current Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi told CNN in a statement, calling the eviction a “sharp departure from tradition” that she and allies believe was “retaliation” for Democrats not supporting McCarthy’s speakership. The man dubbed the “GOP’s attack dog-in-training” by Roll Call nearly two decades ago may still have some teeth in his partisan bite, engaging in a “Republican revenge tour,” according to the conservative National Review.
What next? In spite of his accelerated timeline for electing a replacement, it’s possible McHenry could remain interim speaker for much longer than expected, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) told NPR, as “there is not a manual. There is not a book. This has never been done before.”
No matter then if McHenry is interested in taking a more assertive stance in his inherently temporary role; the unprecedented nature of his ascension to the speaker’s chair may ultimately force his hand to grasp the gavel even harder, whether he likes it or not.
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