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Right-wing rebels block defense bill again, rebuking McCarthy on spending

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, just after House Republicans failed to advance their own defense bill for second time in a week, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Right-wing House Republicans dealt another stunning rebuke to Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Thursday morning, blocking a Pentagon funding bill for the second time this week in a vivid display of GOP disunity on federal spending that threatens to lead to a government shutdown in nine days.

Just hours after McCarthy signaled that he had won over some of the holdouts and was ready to move forward, a handful of Republicans broke with their party to oppose the routine measure that would allow the military appropriations bill to come to the House floor for debate, joining with Democrats to defeat it.

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It was a major black eye for McCarthy, who has on multiple occasions admonished his members in private for taking the rare step of bringing down such votes, known as rules, proposed by their own party — a previously unheard-of tactic. And it signaled continuing right-wing resistance to funding the government, even after the speaker had capitulated Wednesday night to demands from hard-right Republicans for deeper spending cuts as part of any bill to prevent a shutdown.

“This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down,” McCarthy said Thursday. “It doesn’t work.”

Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, a member of Democratic leadership, said he had never before seen a speaker lose a rule vote so many times — three times in four months, and twice this week alone — something that had not happened for two decades before McCarthy assumed the post.

“I don’t quite understand this,” Clyburn said of McCarthy’s strategy, before suggesting he consider cutting a deal with the top House Democrat that could pass both chambers and keep the government open. “My advice is, ‘Go sit down with Hakeem Jeffries.’ If he’s got a solid majority of his caucus. Why wouldn’t he? This is the tail wagging the dog. That’s not the way to do it.”

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But McCarthy is keenly aware that if he were to turn to Democrats for help funding the government, he would face a right-wing effort to remove him from his post.

The final vote was 216-212 against the rule to allow the military spending measure to proceed. All Democrats voted against it, given their opposition to the funding levels in the bill and other provisions that were added by Republicans who say they need to eliminate “woke” policies in the military.

Joining in the Republican defections from their party were Representatives Andy Biggs of Arizona, Dan Bishop of North Carolina, Eli Crane of Arizona, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and Matt Rosendale of Montana. Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the chair of the Rules Committee and an ally of McCarthy, ultimately voted “no” as well so that he would have the ability to request that the vote be reconsidered, a step he took immediately after it was defeated.

But with the House in chaos, leaders quickly asked for a recess to regroup, and it was not clear when they would try again.

In a sign of the complex and confounding resistance McCarthy is facing within his own party, the group of defectors on Thursday was slightly different from the five who broke with the GOP to oppose the same measure two days earlier.

Greene, who has emerged as a McCarthy ally in this Congress and supported the debt ceiling bill he negotiated with President Biden, on Tuesday had voted with her party on the rule. But she said online that she voted against it Thursday because it contained funding for the war in Ukraine.

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“Our Defense bill should not fund our DOD for blood money for the Ukraine war, that’s why I’m a NO,” she wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Greene was also aligned with hard-right Republicans who made it clear that they planned to stand in opposition to McCarthy’s latest stopgap funding proposal, even after he bowed to their demands for steep spending cuts that stood little chance of surviving in the Senate. The group, which included at least seven Republicans, appeared to be large enough to defeat it given the party’s tiny majority, which allows for no more than four defections if all Democrats vote in opposition.

Greene’s vote Thursday morning came just hours after former president Donald Trump weighed in for the first time on the spending fight, using his social media website to encourage Republicans to vote against a temporary funding measure to avert the shutdown of a government he accused of being weaponized against him.

“They failed on the debt limit, but they must not fail now,” Trump wrote, referring to right-wing opposition to the deal McCarthy made with Biden to avert a federal debt default.

It was not clear what McCarthy, who had ordered members to stay in town through Saturday to pass spending legislation, would do next. He huddled in his office Thursday afternoon with members of his leadership team. In recent days, he has been relying on Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, the chair of the Main Street Caucus, for counsel in the spending crisis.

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The latest blockade by the far right was a surprise, coming the morning after an hourslong meeting of the entire Republican conference that the speaker and his allies described as respectful and productive. They emerged Wednesday night from the basement of the Capitol claiming that the fractured conference was inching toward some consensus.

McCarthy said Wednesday night that two of the Republicans who had voted Tuesday to block the Pentagon spending bill from being debated — Representatives Ken Buck of Colorado and Ralph Norman of South Carolina — had been brought in line and that the vote could proceed.

The pair did switch their positions Thursday and voted for the measure, but Greene and Crane flipped to “no,” negating the gain.