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Climate politics: view from Washington

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 5 min read

Dominating politics this week is the war in the Middle East between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas, in which thousands have died and many more have been wounded. Israel's far-right Prime Minister Netanyahu has promised a scorched earth retaliation against Hamas and other terrorist groups like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It appears that both Israel and Hamas are prepared for a long war.

As with all wars, it's the innocent—on both sides—who will suffer the most. The Gaza Strip "is home to at least 2.3 million people, considered one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Israeli officials declared a "complete siege" of Gaza, cutting off water, food and power supplies."

The war is roiling the energy sector. The price of petroleum is rising towards $100/barrel. Analysts say the crisis "could have disastrous consequences for the U.S. economy." The price rise will contribute to inflation and could lead to an economic slump in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.

Republicans in Washington are using the crisis to attack President Biden for his decision to release $6 billion in oil revenues to Iran for humanitarian purposes and the return of five Iranian prisoners facing charges in the U.S. The source of the $6 billion are funds that South Korea owed Iran for oil it purchased "before the Trump administration imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019."

Spokesmen for the administration have stated that none of the funds have been spent. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby has said that "the funds that were moved to Qatar would have 'more legal restrictions' than in South Korea and that the U.S. would have oversight about where the money is being spent." However, Qatar and President Biden have yielded to pressure and agreed to re-freeze the funds.

Ousted Speaker McCarthy set the tone of Republican attacks on President Biden that should be expected to continue over the coming days and weeks. The former speaker said: "Rather than focus on his Green New Deal, he [Biden] should be focused on protecting Americans."

The absence of a Speaker of the House is hampering efforts by Congress to respond to the crisis in the Middle East. No business can be conducted until a new speaker is elected, although committees can still meet. Republicans continue to be their and everyone else’s worst problem. After a week of internal negotiations, they are no closer to electing a new speaker.

Earlier in the week the leading candidate House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA) defeated Jim Jordan (R-OH), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. However, he was unable to cobble together the 217 votes needed to be elected by the full House and has now withdrawn from the race.  

The Republican House conference has now given the speaker nomination to Jordan, who defeated the more moderate Austin Smith (R-GA) by a vote of 124 to 81 in a vote early Friday morning. Unlike Jordan and other Trump-Republicans in the House, the Georgian voted to certify Biden’s victory and is on the record saying that Congress doesn’t have the authority to overturn an election. He was critical of the gang of eight’s efforts to remove McCarthy—going so far as to call them “grifters out for their own glory and fundraising.”

It’s still unclear whether Jordan can command the needed 217 votes when the full House votes. The Ohioan founded the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus (HFC) and was part of the group that booted McCarthy from the speaker's chair. The Caucus’ hardline members have had a hand in removing—voluntarily or otherwise—the last three Republican House speakers. Jordan is not well liked by either moderate Republicans or the Democrats. He is, however, favored by Trump and now has the support of the former speaker.

Much will depend upon what the 210 Republican representatives who voted to keep McCarthy as speaker will do. Although unable to elect a speaker on their own, they can certainly stand in the way of anointing a member of the HFC.

Moderate House Republicans have already indicated their opposition to Jordan. Congressman Don Bacon (R-NE) was reported saying: “The fact is: If you reward bad behavior, you’re going to get more of it.” In a subsequent vote to gauge the amount opposition Jordan might be facing, 55 conference members said they would oppose Jordan’s nomination if brought to the House floor for a vote. It’s a lot of opposition to overcome.

It's critical to remember that Congress is facing a deadline of November 17th to pass FY 2024 appropriations or face the shutdown of the federal government. The government is currently operating under a continuing resolution. McCarthy's support for the resolution led to his ouster. A harder-line conservative speaker is unlikely to care whether the government stays open.

The objective of those on the far right is all about chaos rather than compromise. It's a goal shared by the former president. As if things couldn't get weirder than they already are, Trump had even been talked about as a candidate for the speakership. There's no requirement that the leader of the House must be a member of it. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) supports the idea and has been quoted as saying: "If Trump becomes Speaker of the House, the House chamber will be like a Trump rally every day!!"

Fortunately, it will never be. Not only has Trump indicated that he has a campaign to win, but the rules of the House are that no indicted individual can be speaker. McCarthy has recently indicated that he would be willing to re-take the speakership if other candidates cannot garner the needed votes. It's a reversal of the position he took following his ouster. Should that occur, it's reasonable to assume that he would continue to be under the thumb of the gang of eight that engineered his exit.

Any appearance of Republican consensus is illusory. Ultimately the failure of House Republicans to elect a new speaker outright could lead to a bipartisan solution to the problem. A deal between the Democrats and moderate Republicans could be struck in several ways. A moderate candidate like Austin or Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer (R-MN) could be nominated and elected. Although a much less likely possibility, the Minority Leader of the House, Hakeem Jefferies (D-NY), could also be elected with the help of a half dozen or so Republicans. Stranger things have happened.

This article is also published on Civil Notion. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.

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