WASHINGTON — With roughly one week left to avert a costly government shutdown, it remains an open question whether House Republicans can reach an agreement with Democrats that keeps the government open — and Kevin McCarthy in the speaker’s office.
The California Republican has spent most of his speakership in this familiar spot: trying to get a must-pass piece of legislation through his far-right members who love nothing more than to remind him that just one of them could call a vote to strip him of his job.
McCarthy’s efforts to move the ball forward on funding fell apart Thursday when a small band of conservatives blocked House Republicans from proceeding to a vote on appropriations for the Defense Department, typically one of the least controversial spending bills. Members who had been told to expect votes all weekend were dismissed instead, as conservatives and moderates once again gathered behind closed doors to negotiate.
A plan emerged from the meetings to vote on a suite of other hard-line appropriations packages that would cut spending dramatically below levels McCarthy had previously agreed to in debt ceiling negotiations with President Biden over the summer. Even if they can pass the House, though, those bills will be dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate where lawmakers are slowly moving widely bipartisan budget bills.
But peppered with questions from the press about how that plan does anything to avert the shutdown looming in a week’s time, lawmakers had few answers. Even Friday, as a key committee met to advance the plan, they admitted that there was no actual consideration of the next step. With funding set to run out on Sept. 30, there is no time to pass a full-year budget, requiring a temporary fix. But key conservatives say they remain opposed to any such measure.
Asked if there was ultimately a commitment from the holdouts to eventually support a temporary funding patch in exchange for the steep spending cuts, moderate negotiator New York Republican Representative Marc Molinaro side-stepped.
“There’s a commitment to earnestly engage in this effort to debate,” he told the gathered reporters.
To secure his speakership, McCarthy agreed to restore the one-vote threshold to call a vote on his future, a threshold Democrats had raised to neutralize the procedural tactic in 2019. While the so-called motion to vacate existed in previous Republican majorities, McCarthy’s razor-thin majority means even a few naysayers can cost him the office.
The same band of conservatives who extracted the concession from McCarthy have made clear that if he cuts a deal with Democrats to keep the government open, they would come for his job. But in a divided Washington where Democrats control the Senate and White House, any successful funding bill will require such a compromise.
Other Republicans — including those in the Senate who are anxiously waiting for the House to pass anything that gives them a chance to send back a bipartisan deal to avoid the shutdown — for now are indicating they’re content giving McCarthy room to maneuver among his fractious conference.
North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer noted that he served in the House when previous Republican speakers John Boehner of Ohio and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin served and left “under that same cloud” of the threat of the so-called motion to vacate; he said that Boehner chose to “do the right thing” in departing after funding the government rather than fighting the right flank forever.
“The looming threat of the motion to vacate will be with every speaker going forward really until there’s either a much larger majority or Jesus becomes the speaker of the House,” Cramer said. “I don’t know anybody could do it better than Kevin, to be honest with you. ... I applaud him for being willing to be the speaker, because if they guaranteed me the spot, I’d move to Winnipeg.”
Florida Republican Matt Gaetz, who led the rebellion against McCarthy in January that secured the procedural power to allow one member to trigger a vote to demote McCarthy and who routinely threatens to use it, emerged from the meetings on Thursday gloating that his and other conservatives’ tactics were working, forcing leadership to adopt their proposed paths forward. He demurred on whether he was still willing to call a motion to strip the speakership, but reiterated his firm opposition to any temporary funding fix.
“The progress we’ve made has been in spite of Speaker McCarthy, not because of him,” Gaetz told a large swarm of Republicans as one colleague watched from afar and a Democratic lawmaker walked by taking pictures and chuckling at the scene. “If you look at the events of the last two weeks, things seem to be kind of coming my way.”
Meanwhile, moderate Republicans are preparing their own efforts to try to counterbalance against the right, signaling they would join with Democrats on a procedural motion to circumvent Republican leadership and force a floor vote on something that would keep the government open. California Representative Mike Garcia, a Republican from a swing district, said the plan to work with Democrats on the so-called discharge petition carries “equal weight” to conservatives’ motion to vacate threats.
“It reminds me of the old nuclear adage of mutually assured destruction: As long as both sides are balanced, then we’ve got stability and people pursuing peaceful negotiations, which is what we have right now,” Garcia said as he shuttled between private meetings Thursday, followed by a stream of reporters.
McCarthy may benefit, should a motion to vacate be called, from the fact that if it succeeded, it would paralyze the House entirely. No business would be able to be conducted, even regarding government funding, until a new speaker was selected. This would plunge the House into a repeat of January’s speaker votes, which spanned four days and 15 ballots. And it’s unclear who but McCarthy could have the votes to be speaker, or even want the job.
Former Republican representative Pete King of New York, now a lobbyist, was taking in the scene during a visit to the Capitol on Thursday. He served through shutdowns and speakers who were forced out in the 1990s and last decade, and said the threat of the motion to vacate was a real problem for leadership.
“I think it is, because it’s incentive for that group of 5 or 6 or 7 knowing that they have that kind of leverage,” King said. “This seems more chaotic than anything I went through.”
Democrats are more blunt in their frustrations with the effort to cater to conservatives when they know any ultimate deal will require compromise.
“When McCarthy negotiated all of his power away, he gave them kind of the keys to the Capitol,” Worcester Representative Jim McGovern said. “He just doesn’t seem to want to stand up to them. But at some point he has to decide is keeping his job the primary goal ... or is it about the country?”
McCarthy, for his part, has projected confidence, but reportedly has expressed frustration with the motion to vacate. According to Politico, McCarthy dared conservatives to “move the [expletive] motion” in a closed-door meeting last week. His allies dismiss the idea that the motion factors into his thinking, saying he’s focused on getting agreement within the Republican conference.
“Seems to me he understands that that sword of Damocles is hanging over his head,” said Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn of the motion to vacate. “He may just want to rip the Band-aid off of that and get it over with.”