Speaker McCarthy gives in to hard-line conservatives in hopes of solving government funding impasse
Sep 23, 2023, 11:32 AM
WASHINGTON (AP) — Staring down a fast-approaching government shutdown that threatens to disrupt life for millions of Americans, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has turned to a strategy that so far has preserved his tenuous hold on House leadership but also marked it by chaos: giving hard-right lawmakers what they want.
In his eight months running the House, McCarthy has lived by the upbeat personal mantra of “never give up” as he dodges threats to his speakership and tries to portray Republicans as capable stewards of the U.S. government. He has long chided Washington for underestimating him.
But with the House GOP majority in turmoil, all but certain to hurl the country into a shutdown, McCarthy has set aside the more traditional tools of the gavel to keep rebels in line. Instead, he has acceded to a small band led by those instigating his ouster, even if that means closing federal offices.
It’s an untested strategy that has left McCarthy deeply frustrated, his allies rushing to his side and his grip on power ever more uncertain with the Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government a week away.
“We still have a number of days,” McCarthy said Saturday as he arrived at the Capitol.
“I think when it gets crunch time people will finally, that have been holding off all this time blaming everybody else, will finally hopefully move off,” the California Republican said. “Because shutting down — and having border agents not be paid, your Coast Guard not get paid — I don’t see how that’s good.”
Governing with a narrow House majority, the speaker is facing a more virulent strain of the hard-right tactics that chased the two most recent Republican speakers before him, Reps. John Boehner of Ohio and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, into early retirement. Like them, McCarthy has tried various tactics to restore order. But more than ever, McCarthy finds himself swept along as far-right lawmakers, determined to bend Washington to their will, take control in the House.
McCarthy tried to win conservatives’ support by agreeing to their demand for impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden and then by meeting their calls for spending cuts, only to be turned back whenever a few of them hold out for more concessions.
All the while, McCarthy has retreated from his budget deal with Biden months ago that established the spending threshold for the year. Instead, he is trying to reduce spending more in line with the level he promised the right flank during his tumultuous fight to become the House speaker.
Yet all the concessions seem to never be enough.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who is leading the fight, crowed to reporters Thursday that, “if you look at the events of the last two weeks, things seem to be kind of coming my way.”
Gaetz said he was delivering a eulogy for short-term funding legislation known as a continuing resolution — a mechanism traditionally used to keep the government functioning during spending debates.
Democrats have been eager to lay blame for the impending shutdown on McCarthy and the dysfunction in the House. Biden has called on McCarthy to stick to the annual spending numbers they negotiated to raise the nation’s borrowing limit.
“He handed over the gavel to the most extreme in his party,” said Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, a senior Democrat.
With the House at a standstill and lawmakers at home for the weekend, McCarthy has turned to the plan advanced by Gaetz to start processing some of the nearly dozen annual spending bills needed to fund the various government departments and shelving for now the idea of stopgap approach while the work continues.
It’s a nearly impossible task as Congress runs out of time to find a short-term spending plan.
“We can in no way pass 11 bills in eight days,” said Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the top Democrat appropriator, referring to the number of bills Congress would have to approve before Sept. 30.
DeLauro, a veteran lawmaker, estimated it would take at least six weeks to pass the bills in both chambers of Congress, then negotiate them between the House and Senate. She urged Republicans to embrace a continuing resolution to allow government agencies to stay open.
Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, one of McCarthy’s closest allies, has pointed out that the Senate has advanced legislation at spending levels above those in the deal reached with Biden. He argues that House Republicans need to pass their own bills at the lower numbers to to strengthen their hand in negotiations.
For Congress to solve the current impasse, many expect that it will take a bipartisan coalition that leaves McCarthy’s right flank behind. That would be certain to spark a challenge to his leadership.
In the Senate, Democratic and Republican leaders are working on a package that would fund the government at levels far higher than the House Republicans are demanding and include emergency disaster aid and money for Ukraine, which some of GOP House members oppose.
“Eventually, we’re going to get something back from the U.S. Senate and it’s not going to be to our liking,” said Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, a leading Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. “Then the speaker will have a very difficult decision.”
Associated Press reporter Kevin Freking contributed to this report.