The Crazy Times In Which We Live

Heather Cox Richardson

We are in a bizarre moment. 

If the U.S. government were operating within its normal parameters, my first story tonight would be about new federal charges that Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was acting as an agent of Egypt while chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Democratic rules in the Senate required Menendez to step down from that chair when he was charged with bribery in late September. 

The new charges are serious indeed. As Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) said today, calling for Menendez to be expelled from the Senate: “We cannot have an alleged foreign agent in the United States Senate. This is not a close call.” 

If the government were working as usual, I would also be writing about Congress’s response to the crisis in the Middle East and the war in Ukraine, as well as the jockeying over the appropriations bills necessary to fund the government for 2024. But the House was in session for just two minutes today as the Republicans continued to struggle to get behind a new speaker, leaving Congress paralyzed.

That paralysis means that the House is not addressing these crises.  

The crisis in Israel is uppermost in the United States. The news has been plagued with disinformation as the algorithms on social media have promoted fake stories, but President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been crystal clear in their condemnation of the attack on Israel by Hamas last Saturday and in their promise that the U.S. will stand with Israel. 

They have also made it clear that Israel must operate according to the rules of war in order to avoid civilian casualties. Hamas does not observe those rules, and various U.S. officials have compared Hamas’s brutality to that of the terrorist group ISIS, while nonetheless reinforcing the importance of the rule of law. Israeli officials say that 1,300 people were killed and more than 3,000 wounded in the initial attack; officials in Gaza say that Israeli airstrikes since have killed more than 1,500 people and wounded more than 6,600. 

The airstrikes, consisting of 6,000 munitions in six days, have forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of their homes, and Israel has cut food, fuel, and electricity to Gaza, saying the siege will not end until all the hostages Hamas took are returned.  

Talks with Egypt about constructing humanitarian corridors out of Gaza have broken down, but talks about rushing humanitarian aid into Gaza from Egypt continue. 

Secretary Blinken is in Israel and has expanded his trip to the troubled region, visiting not only Israel and Jordan, as originally announced, but also Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, where he will meet with senior officials. There, the State Department said, he will “reiterate his condemnation of the terrorist attacks in Israel in the strongest terms,” “reaffirm the United States’ solidarity with the government and people of Israel,” and “engage regional partners on efforts to help prevent the conflict from spreading, secure the immediate and safe release of hostages, and identify mechanisms for the protection of civilians.”

Meanwhile, a former Hamas leader has called for protests across the Muslim world tomorrow and for Israel’s neighbors to join the fight against Israel. 

Starting tomorrow, the U.S. government will begin running charter flights to enable U.S. citizens and their immediate family members who have not been able to book commercial flights to leave Israel. Twenty-seven American citizens have been confirmed dead in the attack, and fourteen are unaccounted for. 

Tonight the Israeli military told the United Nations that the 1.1 million people in northern Gaza must evacuate into the southern part within 24 hours as it prepares to go into Gaza, at least in part to target the extensive network of tunnels Hamas has constructed for its operations. U.N. officials said the U.N. “considers it impossible for such a movement to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences.” 

The crisis in Ukraine has not ended while all eyes are on the crisis in the Middle East. The Institute for the Study of War concluded that Russian forces have launched “a significant and ongoing offensive effort” in the past two days but “have not secured any major breakthroughs,” as Ukraine’s forces are “inflicting relatively heavy losses.” Like Israel, Ukraine needs additional funding.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are further from reorganizing the House tonight than they were even a day ago. House majority leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), who won the conference’s secret ballot over Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) yesterday, has given up hope of turning that victory into a win on the House floor and has withdrawn from the race. Former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) broke the secrecy of the conference to tell reporters that Scalise didn’t have the votes, a signal that McCarthy is not intending to fade into the background of this struggle.

Aaron Fritschner, the chief of staff for Representative Don Beyer (D-VA), noted today that since it’s mid-session, no new candidate for speaker has prime positions to offer in exchange for votes. Leadership positions have already been handed out, and legislative promises have already been made. That leaves a potential speaker with relatively little leverage to consolidate power.

Representative David Joyce (R-OH) revealed how badly the negotiations are going when he told Jake Sherman of Punchbowl News that he’s talking to Republicans and Democrats about giving acting speaker Patrick McHenry (R-NC) more power for 30 to 60 days so that the House can pass a funding bill while the Republicans try to get their act together. 

The Republican chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike McCaul of Texas, today told reporters, “Every day that goes by, it gets more dangerous.” He continued:  “I see a lot of threats out there, but one of the biggest threats I see is in that room [pointing to where the Republicans were meeting], because we can’t unify as a conference and put a speaker in the chair together.” 

House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) today said it is “urgently necessary” for the Republicans to “get their act together and elect a Speaker from within their own ranks, as it is the responsibility of the majority party to do, or have traditional Republicans break with the extremists within the House Republican Conference and partner with Democrats on a bipartisan path forward. We are ready, willing, and able to do so. I know there are traditional Republicans who are good women and men who want to see government function, but they are unable to do it within the ranks of their own conference, which is dominated by the extremist wing, and that’s why we continue to extend the hand of bipartisanship to them.”

Journalist Brian Tyler Cohen, who hosts the podcast No Lie with Brian Tyler Cohen, summed up the day when he wrote: “The fact that ALL Republicans would rather fight over Scalise (who attended a neo-Nazi event) or Jordan (who allegedly covered up rampant sexual abuse) rather than simply work with Democrats to elect a Speaker says it all.”

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