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Pressure to fill House speaker vacancy builds as crisis unfolds in Israel

<i>Eric Lee/Bloomberg/Getty Images</i><br/>Visitors near the US Capitol on October 2. The House speakership drama enters a new week under increased urgency as Israel declared war on October 8.
Eric Lee/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Visitors near the US Capitol on October 2. The House speakership drama enters a new week under increased urgency as Israel declared war on October 8.

By Kaanita Iyer and Jack Forrest, CNN

(CNN) — The House speakership drama enters a new week under increased urgency as Israel declared war Sunday following unprecedented surprise attacks by Hamas.

Kevin McCarthy’s historic ouster as speaker leaves the House in uncharted legal territory regarding what it can do under acting Speaker Patrick McHenry. When lawmakers return to Washington, they will be under pressure to elect a new speaker swiftly amid the crisis in Israel, which has prompted some calls from within the Republican Party to speed up their timeline given the national security implications of keeping the role vacant.

In a briefing with House leadership Sunday night, Biden administration briefers from the State and Defense Departments told lawmakers they are moving as quickly as they can to deliver weapons and resources to Israel that were part of already existing contracts by accelerating them, three people familiar with the call told CNN. That could help ensure that the US can provide some items as soon as possible even as there are larger questions about how quickly Congress could act on a larger aid package.

Administration officials said they will look to the current $100 million in Presidential Drawdown Authority, which allows the rapid dispatch of weapons from existing stocks, to send more aid immediately, according to a person familiar with the discussion. The drawdown will likely need additional funds from Congress, the officials told lawmakers.

As the Biden administration looks to provide additional assistance to Israel, officials were unsure Saturday about what could be accomplished without a sitting speaker. While McHenry is serving as speaker pro tempore, he has little power outside of recessing, adjourning or recognizing speaker nominations, and it’s unclear whether he can participate in intelligence briefings on the crisis in Israel.

Multiple lawmakers on national security and appropriations committees have asked for classified briefings, with indications that may happen soon after the Monday national holiday.

Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said Sunday that he had conversations with the White House and the National Security Council on Saturday, but he has not yet met with the so-called Gang of Eight – which typically includes the top leaders and heads of the intelligence committees in both parties and both chambers.

“I do anticipate that we’ll have the opportunity to have a secure briefing at some point next week,” Jeffries told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”

Jeffries said it is his understanding that the Biden administration can make some decisions regarding aid to Israel without waiting for Congress and urged the administration to do so, adding that he expects “it will provide whatever assistance it can.”

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul told Bash on Sunday that the president can use $3.3 billion in foreign military financing that is already appropriated.

The Texas Republican also called McCarthy’s ouster “dangerous.”

“I look at the world and all of the threats that are out there and what kind of message are we sending to adversaries when we can’t govern, when we are dysfunctional, when we don’t even have a speaker of the House?” McCaul said on “State of the Union.”

McCarthy on Saturday slammed his Republican colleagues for removing him from office last week, and stressed the impact of a speakerless House on national security. “Why would you ever remove a speaker during a term to raise doubt around the world?” McCarthy asked in a Fox News interview.

McCarthy announced shortly after his ouster that he would not seek the speakership again, making room for House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan to launch their bids for the seat.

Former President Donald Trump has thrown his support behind Jordan. Oklahoma Rep. Kevin Hern announced Saturday that he had decided not to run, saying, “I believe a three-man race for speaker will create even more division and make it harder to elect a speaker.”

House Republicans are scheduled to hold a candidate forum on Tuesday and an internal election on Wednesday.

As Jordan and Scalise vie for their colleagues’ support, Jordan said Sunday that he would lay out his plan to address the government funding deadline to his caucus Tuesday.

“We’ve got to have 218 votes for a Republican speaker, and we’ve got to have 218 votes for how we deal with November 17 when the funding bill for the government comes due. … I will outline that in front of my colleagues on Tuesday when we get together,” he said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.”

Jordan said his first order of business, however, would be to bring a resolution to the floor in support of Israel.

It’s unclear when the speaker floor vote will happen, and the timeline is contingent on whether moderate GOP lawmakers can rally around Scalise or Jordan, who are both from more conservative districts.

“We have to get a speaker elected this week so we can get things on the floor like replenishing the Iron Dome,” McCaul told Bash on Sunday – referring to Israel’s rocket defense system, which was developed with help from the US. He added that the House should look to pass a resolution condemning Hamas “by unanimous consent whether or not we have a speaker in place because I think we cannot wait. We have to get that message out as soon as possible.”

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify when Congress returns.

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CNN’s Alex Marquardt, Jeremy Herb, Lauren Fox, Zachary Cohen, Casey Gannon, Annie Grayer, Melanie Zanona, Manu Raju, Kevin Liptak, Lauren Koenig, Lauren Fox, Haley Talbot and Pamela Brown contributed to this report.

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