Interim Speaker McHenry effectively powerless on Israel matters, experts say

The global crisis unfolding in Israel is putting renewed scrutiny on Congress, which has been without a permanent House speaker since Kevin McCarthy was ousted last week.

Hamas on Saturday launched an unprecedented attack on Israel, leaving hundreds dead and escalating a decades-long conflict in the region. President Joe Biden on Saturday said that U.S. support for Israel is ironclad.

But as an unelected Speaker Pro Tempore, Rep. Patrick McHenry is effectively powerless on the matter. Per House rules, the interim speaker can only act on matters that relate to the election of a new Speaker: gavel in, gavel out, and preside. This post-9/11 rule was designed for continuity of government, and not for an unprecedented political situation like the one we are in now. Two scholars with knowledge told NBC News the House would need to elect McHenry as Speaker Pro Tem for this to change.

So, McHenry couldn’t even pass a resolution condemning the attack?

Exactly. Not unless the House votes to let him do it. There is even a question as to whether McHenry could call for a moment of silence on the House floor — that is how limited his powers are believed to be.

And what about emergency funding for Israel, or its Iron Dome?

We’ve seen statements from relevant House and Senate lawmakers expressing willingness to propose legislation to this effect. But without a permanent House Speaker, the legislation can’t be brought to the House floor. And the Senate is out next week with no current plans to come back early.

Ok, but can McHenry even get a classified briefing?

He does have some level of security clearance because of his role as Chair of the Financial Services Committee. But this is different than the kind of classified intelligence the Gang of Eight typically receives. The Gang of Eight, briefed on classified intelligence matters by the executive branch, consists of leaders of each of the two parties from both the Senate and House, and the top lawmakers on both chambers’ Intelligence committees. The President does have the power to grant McHenry Gang of 8 authority, per U.S. Code, and thus McHenry could, in theory, receive such a classified intelligence briefing.

A senior administration official said yesterday that this is something the administration is actively discussing. “It’s a great question. It’s actually something we were discussing today, because there probably is a role for Congress here and without a Speaker of the House, that is a unique situation we’re going to have to work through,” the official said.

House Republicans plan to meet on Oct. 11 to hold elections for a new speaker. Among the top candidates are House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La.

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