U.S. House speaker fight is jeopardizing Israeli aid, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul says

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul at the Texas Advanced Computing Center on April 18, 2022. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune, Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

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WASHINGTON — House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul said the gridlock among U.S. House Republicans over the choice for their next speaker is jeopardizing some of the country’s top national security priorities including providing aid to Israel.

“The world is watching us now. We’re not just in some vacuum in D.C. It’s urgent,” the Austin Republican said in an interview Tuesday. “It's just imperative that we stop playing games, we elect a speaker and we govern.”

Until the House selects a new speaker, all other business is paused. That means defense aid for U.S. allies like Israel and Ukraine are stuck, even though overwhelming majorities of Congress support assisting Israel following last weekend’s attacks.

Israel sustained a series of rocket attacks and a ground invasion over the weekend that killed more than 700 Israelis and 11 U.S. citizens, with hundreds more being held hostage in Gaza. Hamas, a militant group that has had control over the Gaza Strip since 2007, launched the attack, which has been widely condemned by Western governments as an act of terror. Israel and Egypt have long imposed a land, air and sea blockade of Gaza. But Israel’s conservative government has vowed to further retaliate by blocking off resources for the Gaza Strip and has hit the territory with targeted strikes.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday he would push Congress to “take urgent action to fund the security requirements of our critical partners," including Israel and Ukraine. McCaul’s committee authorized $3.3 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system earlier this year, with about $420 million appropriated in defense funding legislation.

McCaul led a vastly bipartisan group of nearly 400 members Tuesday in introducing a resolution declaring the U.S.’ steadfast support for Israel and condemnation of Hamas. Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, another member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was also one of the original sponsors of the resolution. The majority of Texas members signed onto the resolution, including deep conservatives like Rep. Ronny Jackson and progressives like Rep. Lloyd Doggett, with more signatories continuing to join Tuesday evening.

But none of that aid money or legislative action can move forward without a speaker dictating floor action in the House.

“I don’t think they even thought about [the national security consequences] until the events of last weekend showed it’s a dangerous world,” McCaul said of the eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy. “This is not a game. Some of them had legitimate complaints, but for some of them, it was just a personality problem.”

It isn’t a new position for the Texan. The House was stalled for a week in January when it took 15 rounds of votes to elect McCarthy as speaker of the House. During that time, no members could be sworn in, and no committees could organize and do their work.

McCaul lamented at the time that the pause could be a national security threat by blocking members from accessing sensitive information or conducting congressional oversight functions.

Aid money to Ukraine is already a major sticking point for Republicans, with more conservative members opposing further funding. It’s a central question in the speaker fight as candidates make their case.

House Republicans are meeting Tuesday evening to hear from the two candidates for the speakership: House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan. Republicans hope to elect their nominee for the speakership Wednesday before a House-wide vote.

Republicans are hoping to avoid the chaos of January’s speaker election, which was largely driven by a group of far-right members pushing for rules changes to give their faction of the party a greater voice. Without those demands, members are more concentrated on finding a candidate who can unify the party rather than any specific policy stances.

Still, the conference remains deeply divided between Scalise, who rose up through the natural hierarchy of Republican leadership and was close to McCarthy, and Jordan, a co-founder of the far-right House Freedom Caucus who has been skeptical toward continued aid for Ukraine.

The Texas delegation is no different. Just over half of Texas Republicans have announced whom they’ll back in the speaker race, and they are nearly evenly split between Scalise and Jordan.

McCaul did not say which candidate he supported and predicted most members of the delegation won’t rally behind a single candidate until after they all hear out the different candidates.

“When we show dysfunction in government, it weakens our democracy. And that's precisely what our adversaries like to see,” McCaul said.