Why Hard-Right Republicans Are Steering Washington Toward a Government Shutdown

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An exasperated Speaker of the House, facing the prospect of a government shutdown over unrealistic demands from his own party’s right flank and a threat to his own hold on power, had had enough. He was ready to pay the price. Fine. Let the rabble-rousing Freedom Caucus wage their war. It was time to, to borrow a G-rated version of the military idiom, f--k around, find out: “There's a limit to what we can do, but this is a fight they wanted,” he said over dinner with his war council. “Let them have the fight. Then maybe they'll learn their lesson.”

That was where John Boehner was at a decade ago, as freshmen Sen. Ted Cruz guided the federal government into a shutdown because President Barack Obama was refusing to repeal the Affordable Care Act, his signature healthcare law. Boehner and his allies knew it was a lost cause, but they went ahead with the doomed effort. After all, Boehner couldn’t really stop it. The ensuing 13-day shutdown tanked the Republican brand as images of shuttered national parks cycled on cable TV, the GOP nominee for Governor in Virginia lost a very winnable race, and the economy shed $24 billion.

Run the tape today and it seems like it’s the same scenario on deck, with many of the same radicals in the majority proving why we can’t have nice things. 

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But here’s the thing: the ding on the GOP wasn’t permanent. Within three years, that burn-it-down branch of the electorate politics nominated and elected neophyte Donald Trump to the White House over a much more-qualified nominee in Hillary Clinton. Memories are short. And consequences are not.

Earlier this year around Washington, the key question was whether Speaker Kevin McCarthy could steer his caucus away from shutting down the government. That no longer seems up for debate. Now the questions flying around the Capitol come in two categories. Top of mind are the logistical ones: When will the government shut down? And for how long?

Then there are the more nuanced queries: What price, if any, will McCarthy pay for grinding the U.S. government to a halt, thereby sending millions of federal workers home without pay while forcing millions more in uniform to keep showing up for free? And will any of that matter when voters head to the polls in 2024? After all, McCarthy agreed to a provision that allows a single member to offer a motion to boot him, and it leaves him perpetually on the brink of ruin.

Eight months ago, it took 15 rounds of balloting for McCarthy to win the job of Speaker. At the moment, he presides over a party that can afford just four defections on any given vote, assuming everyone shows up and votes. McCarthy has vowed not to bring anything to the floor that lacks the support of the majority of his party, meaning Democrats can’t save him here. Simply put: McCarthy is holding onto the gavel by the narrowest margin of any first-term Speaker since 1931.

The House Freedom Caucus has been open about their plans to leverage the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year to push for their pet causes, such as defunding prosecutors looking into former President Donald Trump’s alleged crimes. The demands are as audacious as they are dead if they were to reach the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats and requires a bipartisan 60 votes to spend money. In other words, they’re chasing an agenda that is DOA on the north side of the Capitol. McCarthy knows it. The Freedom Caucus should know it. Every single Senator knows it.

And yet Washington is going to spend the next month lurching from one demand to the next to maybe deliver a stopgap spending plan that maintains the current spending levels.

As lawmakers pack their bags for a return from the August Recess, they’re also bringing back plenty of ill-will and animus. As TIME’s Nik Popli reported at the time, lawmakers left town in July having punted on a bill to fund the relatively neutral Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration. They’re coming back with only 12 work days in the House in September to pass 11 of the 12 annual appropriations bills. (The one spending bill to clear the House funds veterans’ programs and military building, but carried a provision limiting abortion rights for women in uniform, resulting in a narrow 219-to-211 passage, with every Democrat and two Republicans opposing it. Its prospects in the Senate are, frankly, shaky.)

Already, top aides on Capitol Hill and throughout the Biden administration have quietly been telling junior staffers to spend the summer squirreling away any extra cash so they can pay rent when the shutdown arrives. Some of my pals have been adding extra shifts at their second jobs. (Yes, many of those working some of the most prestigious jobs in the nation’s capital have to double as bartenders, waiters, and valets to make ends meet in pricey Washington, where the median monthly rents top $2,600 and junior White House staffers earn a little more than $51,000 a year.)

Typically, federal workers get back-pay when the government eventually reopens, although some fear arrears will not be in the offing this time. The very same House lawmakers who are willing to tank the federal government have little regard for the federal workforce, seen by the anti-government activists as leeches on the teats of taxpayers. 

But here’s the thing that these lawmakers are missing: 60% of the civilian workforce finds themselves on payroll at the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. For the folks who wear Gadsden Flag pins paired with their Stars and Stripes, the inherent contradictions of stiffing those involved in maintaining our national security in pursuit of a partisan agenda may not matter. It’s a different story for many of those Republicans in Congress who might be unable to dodge a hostage situation that they don’t even support.

Under the Constitution, any spending bills are largely seen to have to start—to originate, in legalese—in the House. That largely spares Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell any skin. As with the debt-ceiling standoff earlier this year, McConnell is giving McCarthy the reins. (While McConnell’s recent health hiccups have undercut his image as one of D.C.’s commanding figures, he remains perhaps the most formidable Senate Leader in decades.)

Even McCarthy’s allies understand the precarious position he’s in, and they liken it to another Speaker with a rowdy right flank. In 2015, Boehner again faced a rebellion from the Freedom Caucus over social-policy riders—cuts to Planned Parenthood, restrictions on Syrian refugees—that threatened a government shutdown. He weathered the 2013 shutdown but, when faced with a sequel in 2015, Boehner was ready to walk away. For him, it just wasn’t worth the hassle to keep the gig. He made the deal, packed his Camel cigarettes, and called up tee times in Florida.

Then-Rep. Mark Meadows in 2015 deployed an obscure procedure—a motion to vacate the chair—for the first time since 1910 in a shot across the bow at Boehner’s speakership. It was audacious. But it sent the message that the Freedom Caucus was unhappy with the deal-making at hand. Boehner took the hint and bolted. Paul Ryan rose later that year before suffering a similar fate in 2018.

One particularly close Boehner ally likened those lawmakers to "lemmings with suicide vests." Well, in the decade since, those vests have been upgraded to full coats, and the caucus is proving it remains no more capable of original thoughts than it was a decade ago beyond jamming their own Speaker and opposing a Democratic White House in pursuit of the impossible. It doesn’t presage much responsible governing, but it does whiff at plenty of drama.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com