How Chris Stewart’s exit might shift the dynamics in Congress

Stewart’s final day in office is Friday.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks at an event for the Sutherland Institute at the University of Utah, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.

Rep. Chris Stewart is taking his final bow in Congress ahead of what is shaping up to be a tumultuous autumn. Lawmakers are fighting over government funding to avoid a shutdown. At the same time, the House GOP is moving forward with an impeachment inquiry over the business dealings of President Joe Biden’s family members.

In May, Stewart revealed he was retiring from Congress due to his wife’s health issues. Before his exit, House Republicans already had little room for error with a four-seat majority. Stewart’s exit drops that margin to just three, with 221 Republicans to 212 Democrats.

Arthur Delaney, who reports on Congress for the Huffington Post, says Stewart’s departure changes the math for House Republicans and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

“Chris Stewart’s early retirement will make the narrow Republican majority even narrower, and in the coming weeks, Stewart’s and other Republican absences could have a major impact on what passes the House, effectively giving as few as two or three Republicans the power to block legislation, since House Speaker Kevin McCarthy usually likes to pass bills on a partisan basis,” Delaney says.

When Stewart leaves, Republicans can lose four votes and still have enough votes to pass legislation without any Democratic votes. However, as Delaney pointed out, there are several Republicans in the House who could be sidelined with health issues, including Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who is battling cancer.

Stewart’s absence could be felt most acutely during negotiations to pass a funding bill since he holds a seat on the influential appropriations committee.

But even that impact could be minimal, says longtime Utah political consultant Spencer Stokes.

“A lot of the agenda for Congress is already baked in,” Stokes says. “I think Congressman Stewart thought this through so as not to leave Utah in the lurch.”

Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who resigned from Congress before his term ended in 2017, agrees that any hand-wringing over Stewart’s exit may be overblown.

“There’s always some crisis looming, and every vote is important,” Chaffetz, author of the recent New York Times bestselling book “The Puppeteers,” said.

Chaffetz, now a commentator for Fox News, says Stewart gave congressional leaders plenty of notice that he would leave.

“I’m sure (Speaker) McCarthy doesn’t want a tight vote, but every vote is tight. Even the vote on something as mundane as approving the calendar is a tight vote,” Chaffetz says.

“Stewart was an important voice and a real leader in the House, but somehow, the Republic will survive,” Chaffetz added.

Come Monday, it will be over 80 days until Stewart’s replacement is seated. The winner of the Nov. 21 special election between Republican Celeste Maloy and Democrat Kathleen Riebe won’t be officially sworn in until the results are certified on Dec. 5.

Stewart’s office did not respond to requests for comment from The Tribune.