If Republicans and Democrats in Congress don’t agree on a spending deal by Sunday, the federal government will shut down. It’s not some sudden deadline lawmakers didn’t know was coming. Congress has to pass legislation to fund the government every year. Yet now, with less than a week to spare, there’s no indication that talks between lawmakers are getting any more serious. And if a shutdown occurs, it’s crystal clear who will be to blame: Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the House, who appears incapable of standing up to the most intransigent members of his party.
Shutdowns have become a fairly common piece of political theater, but they cause real hardships. If one were to happen, the millions of people on federal payrolls will stop getting paid. It doesn’t matter whether they’re considered essential and must continue working or whether they’re furloughed — no one will receive a paycheck as long as Congress stalls funding the government. Eventually, the government’s services will be put on pause: National parks and museums will close, federal loans will no longer be administered, and some social welfare programs will be disrupted. If a shutdown lasts long enough, the nation’s economy could take a hit, too.
So what’s keeping McCarthy from putting together a deal that can pass in the House, clear the Senate, and get to President Biden’s desk in time to avert a shutdown? It seems the answer is that he’s worried about the threat a reasonable bipartisan deal — even one that the vast majority of his caucus could support — might pose to his speakership.
That’s why he’s been trying to placate the small group of ultraconservative Republican lawmakers who have obstructed funding proposals because they refuse to back down on a laundry list of spending they demand the House curtail, including things like aid to Ukraine and the Justice Department’s probes into former president Donald Trump. (Trump has called for congressional Republicans to hold the line and shut down the government if they don’t get those concessions.) Those are, by and large, ideas that not even most Republicans support.
But McCarthy has a fragile coalition. With a paper-thin House majority, he can only afford to lose four votes on a budget vote if he doesn’t court any Democrats. And the far-right obstructionists he’s trying to bring on board — who mostly come from deep-red districts — don’t have much to worry about when it comes to the political ramifications of a shutdown because their reelections are all but guaranteed. That’s why they may be willing to retaliate against McCarthy if he cuts a deal with Democrats (they’ve threatened to oust him as speaker).
But given the math, it’s a no-brainer that McCarthy must pivot to the center if he’s actually interested in governing, not to the hard right, where members’ ideal spending bills have no chance of passing the Senate. And with the deadline fast approaching, it’s time for the speaker to stop playing with fire and start negotiating a deal that the majority of his caucus can pass with the help of some Democrats. Moderate Republican lawmakers have been trying to work out such a deal. They shouldn’t be shy about using some hardball tactics of their own and should make clear that they won’t support unrealistic spending legislation spearheaded by the hard-right obstructionists. When only one part of the GOP coalition wields threats to depose the speaker, it’s not much surprise that group so often gets its way.
It’s on McCarthy to embolden the moderates in his party. But so far he’s been more concerned about the members on the fringe. It may well be true that reaching a deal with Democrats could cause a revolt among Republicans who want to end McCarthy’s reign as speaker. But at some point, McCarthy has to figure out what he’s doing all of this for. Just last week, in a moment that highlighted his frustration, he perfectly articulated what’s wrong with the opposition he’s facing from his own party. “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down,” he said. “That doesn’t work.”
But it does work — unless and until McCarthy pushes back. Is maintaining his speakership, where he will feebly preside over such an emboldened obstructionist caucus, really worth shutting the government down? That’s the question McCarthy will have to answer by the end of this week.
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