Kevin McCarthy’s Shutdown Dilemma

7 minute read

With just five days to go until the government shuts down without a spending deal, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is at a crossroads.

He can either shut down the government and possibly save his standing with the GOP hardliners threatening to oust him, or work with Democrats to pass a short-term spending bill and avert a government shutdown—potentially at the expense of his own speakership.

Caught in the middle of the California Republican's political calculus are millions of Americans who would be impacted by even a short government shutdown, including hundreds of thousands of federal workers and scores of everyday citizens.

The threat to McCarthy's leadership comes from Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and at least four other conservative hardliners who have said that they would attempt to overthrow McCarthy if he cooperates with Democrats to pass a stopgap measure to keep the government funded. These lawmakers are adamant in their opposition to any funding bill that doesn't meet their strict fiscal and policy demands.

McCarthy has been exploring various strategies, including a proposal to package four individual appropriations bills that would cut billions of dollars in spending. The approach would mark an attempt to appease conservatives while buying more time to pass the rest of their spending bills, though there is no guarantee that McCarthy can gather enough support from his fellow Republicans to pass this funding package or a continuing resolution (CR), a short-term bill.

Asked on Tuesday if he’s willing to work with House or Senate Democrats to keep the government open, McCarthy signaled that he would rather bypass talks with congressional Democrats and instead strike a spending deal directly with President Joe Biden, months after the pair agreed to funding levels during this year’s debt ceiling fight. “I think it’d be very important to have a meeting with the President,” McCarthy said. Any potential deal would have to include the House GOP’s border security package, he added. “I believe we have a majority here, and we can work together to solve this. It might take us a little longer, but this is important,” McCarthy said.

The House Speaker's political tightrope act is compounded by former President Donald Trump's backing of the conservative hardliners. Last week, Gaetz made his stance clear, stating, "I’m giving a eulogy to the CR right now. I’m not voting for a continuing resolution, and a sufficient number of Republicans will never vote for a continuing resolution."

But even if McCarthy decides to go around the far-right members of his own party and work with Democrats, it’s not clear how his colleagues across the aisle will react. If McCarthy attempts to work with Democrats to avoid a shutdown, Republicans could trigger a "motion to vacate," forcing a vote on whether to oust McCarthy as Speaker. Democrats would then face a difficult decision: support McCarthy in order to keep the government funded and risk angering their own party's base, or seize the opportunity to potentially remove him from office.

Moderate Democrats have so far refrained from making concrete promises. Some Democrats may even demand concessions in exchange for their support of McCarthy. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who sits on the Appropriations committee, tells TIME that he would be willing to help McCarthy “for the good of the institution” by tabling a motion to vacate, a proposal that he says several Democrats would support to keep the government open. “I feel bad for him because he is the Speaker and is supposed to be governing,” Cuellar says. “It’s unfortunate but he’s got to make a decision. It’s like a Band-Aid: do you pull it slowly or do you just pull it off and vacate?”

“Either we do it now or he’s going to live and work the next year and a half under this threat,” he added. “And he can’t operate under a constant threat by his far-right people.”

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are currently in talks over a short-term bill to keep the government open past Sept. 30, though any Senate plan may get bogged down in the Republican-led House if it includes the $24 billion to help Ukraine that the White House requested—a move several conservatives oppose

McCarthy also has the White House to appease. White House officials have insisted that McCarthy uphold his end of the debt ceiling deal he made with Biden this summer, which kept government funding at nearly flat levels for the next fiscal year. But conservatives had pushed for much lower funding levels, with some viewing the agreement as a starting point for negotiations. "I need to be very clear, it’s up to the Speaker to twist in the wind. I mean, seriously ... a deal is a deal," White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday. "The President made a deal with the Speaker and a bipartisan deal that was voted by two-thirds of House Republicans back in June."

Michael Linden, a former Office of Management and Budget official who was closely involved in the negotiations that led to the Biden-McCarthy debt ceiling deal, says it is “extremely unusual” for the government to shut down not long after congressional leaders reached a bipartisan agreement on overall spending levels. “My impression absolutely was that they were negotiating in good faith and that they intended to stick to the terms and the contours of the deal,” Linden says of past budget talks between McCarthy and Biden. “Now I hope that Speaker McCarthy makes good on his word. Allowing the government to shut down would not only be going back on the deal, but it would be extremely damaging for him. Under what circumstances would anybody in any future need for negotiation trust that he is able to make good on his word if he can’t deliver this?”

On Tuesday, McCarthy projected confidence that he’s flipped enough of the five Republican holdouts, but doubts remain. Rep. Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican who backed McCarthy’s speakership bid, said on CNN on Sept. 24 that he won’t support a short-term bill and that he would “look strongly at” overthrowing McCarthy if he passes one relying on Democratic votes. Other conservatives, including Reps. Eli Crane of Arizona and Dan Bishop of North Carolina, have expressed similar views, underscoring McCarthy’s challenge.

“It really does suggest how extreme and out of the mainstream this faction of House Republicans is, and it puts Kevin McCarthy in a very difficult position,” Linden says. 

McCarthy has so far struggled to assemble enough votes to pass individual spending bills, in part because conservatives want a slew of amendments in the legislation on hot-button policy issues ranging from abortion and LGBTQ troops to racial identity and border wall construction. The far-right demands, despite having support from some prominent Republicans, risk turning off Democrats who GOP leaders will almost certainly need to pass any spending bills. 

House Republicans on Tuesday are expected to bring up a procedural vote to move forward on four regular appropriations bills this week, a significant test for McCarthy after he failed to pass a similar procedural vote for a defense bill last week in a major embarrassment for the House GOP leaders. Rep. Chip Roy, a hard-right Texas Republican who worked on the short-term funding bill, told Fox News last week that his party’s holdouts are “gonna eat a s—t sandwich” that they “probably deserve to eat” if they continue to block a plan to keep the government open. Politically, a split within ultra-conservative circles could be McCarthy’s best hope of survival, allowing him to make the case to moderate Republicans and Democrats that ousting him wouldn’t solve any problems, because the far-right holdouts are too powerful for any Speaker to contend with.

“There may have never been a shutdown where the blame for causing it has been so crystal clear,” Linden says. “This is a problem that has been caused entirely within the Republican [conference] in the House.”

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