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Republicans’ New Shutdown Gambit
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Republicans’ New Shutdown Gambit

Plus: Is Gavin Newsom Democrats’ future hope?

Reps. Matt Gaetz, Chip Roy, and Byron Donalds, attend a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, July 12, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Happy Monday! If you weren’t watching the minute-to-minute news over the weekend, you might be surprised to hear that the government didn’t shut down after all. (Don’t get too excited; plenty more chances for that lie ahead.)

Up to Speed

  • After weeks of drama, the House of Representatives voted 335-91 Saturday to fund the government at current spending levels for 45 days. The package, brought forward by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, differed from the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in one respect: It did not include additional aid to Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Senate passed the package, which President Joe Biden signed into law Saturday night with minutes to spare before the midnight deadline. 
  • Rep. Matt Gaetz, who together with a small group of hardliners spent the shutdown fight tanking every Republican proposal with an eye toward forcing McCarthy into taking a bipartisan course, announced following the deal that he would attempt to remove McCarthy as speaker this week. Meanwhile, CNN reports that a separate group of Republicans is preparing to push to expel Gaetz himself from Congress, pending the completion of a longstanding Ethics Committee investigation into the Florida congressman.
  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental and anti-vaccine activist who launched an insurgent primary challenge against Joe Biden earlier this year, is expected to announce next week he will instead run as an independent in 2024.
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom said over the weekend he would appoint longtime Democratic strategist Laphonza Butler to fill the seat of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died last week at age 90. Butler is a close political ally of Vice President Kamala Harris and since 2021 has served as president of EMILY’s List, which works to elect pro-choice women to Congress. In that role, Butler has lived in Maryland for the last two years, but Newsom’s office told a California reporter Sunday that she remains a California homeowner and will reregister to vote in the state before her swearing-in.
  • A New York civil trial against Donald Trump begins today, less than a week after a judge ruled that Trump, his sons, and their companies are liable for “persistent and repeated” fraud for allegedly inflating their assets on financial statements over a period of years. The trial could result in financial penalties for the former president and his companies, as well as increased public visibility into their operations.
  • As former South Carolina Gov. and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley inches upward in the polls, Donald Trump has begun focusing fire on her, dubbing her “birdbrain” in social media posts and writing that she “doesn’t have the TALENT or TEMPERAMENT to do the job” of president. 

Freedom Caucus Infighting Shapes the Spending Debate

Say you’re a rock-ribbed conservative representative from a ruby-red district confronted with a fight over government spending. You think the federal government is way, way too large and its spending is completely out of control. How might you choose to behave when two different factions of your own party ask for your help?

Option one: You come to the negotiating table and make it known that your vote to fund the government is gettable, provided you see real cuts to spending and concessions to other conservative priorities. 

Option two: You proclaim the whole legislative process an irredeemable sham. Don’t your fellow conservatives realize how broken Washington is? How appalling the whole arm-twisting “pass a funding bill or else” process has gotten? If they’re gonna pass another way-too-big spending bill, they’re gonna do it over your dead body.

In the aftermath of the September standoff over a short-term government funding bill, resolved for now after a weekend of frantic jockeying, two things seem clear. If you’re interested in actually turning the enormous ship of state in the direction of fiscal prudence, there’s a lot to recommend door No. 1. But if you’re more interested in boosting your personal reputation as an uncompromising fighter in the flamboyant ecosystem of conservative media—well, door No. 2 might be a better fit for you.

In the past, members of the archconservative House Freedom Caucus have often found themselves in the latter camp, with no role to play except that of spoiler. But this time, several members of the group—recognizing that the narrow Republican majority gave them remarkable negotiating power—decided early on to play ball. 

Led by Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, they sat down with a group of more moderate members of the conference to hash out the contours of the GOP’s negotiating position, in expectation of a game of chicken with the Democratic Senate. Their proposed spending package, which was blessed by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, wouldn’t have fixed Congress’ process problems or balanced the federal budget, but it would have cut most discretionary federal spending by 8 percent while allocating more money to conservative priorities like border security.

But other members of the Freedom Caucus—led by another Florida man, Rep. Matt Gaetz—had other plans.

The ordinary logic of a government shutdown fight is simple. Because shutdowns are pointless, painful, and profoundly wasteful, Americans go looking for somebody to blame when they occur, and it’s each party’s job to convince them the fault lies with the other side: If they’d only fund X, or if they’d only accept cuts on Y, this whole mess could have been avoided. 

But the longer this particular standoff lasted, the clearer it became that Gaetz’s coalition was playing by a different set of rules. A shutdown wasn’t a pain point at all. It was the goal: an opportunity to sell themselves as the only Republicans willing to take drastic action against the federal status quo, and an opportunity to damage their chief congressional enemy—McCarthy. So they repeatedly refused to vote for any short-term spending package whatsoever.

The fact that Gaetz’s coalition refused to play the ordinary game of shutdown chicken guaranteed the rest of the Republicans would lose it. The Senate had already passed a bipartisan short-term bill keeping most government funding at current levels, and McCarthy and Donalds had no counterproposal they could get through the House. Had McCarthy refused to allow a vote on a package comparable to the Senate’s, he’d be the one to catch the blame for the resulting shutdown. So he made sure there wouldn’t be one—by holding a vote on a “clean” bill with few cuts. The budget hawks in his own party didn’t love it, but McCarthy was able to pass it with largely Democratic support. (McCarthy’s package did cut out additional aid to Ukraine, and aid advocates in both parties will attempt to pass a standalone bill to continue that funding.)

For Matt Gaetz, this was a perfectly fine outcome: McCarthy had been forced to compromise, and he himself had not. More opportunity to play the hero on TV, and more fuel for the fire of his campaign to oust McCarthy as speaker. 

“The attention [Gaetz] derives from these stunts—the media hits, the fundraising, the reality TV plotlines—is the end in and of itself,” former GOP strategist Liam Donovan tells The Dispatch. “Even as it relates to McCarthy, he has set up a situation that amounts to heads-Gaetz-wins, tails-Kevin-loses.”

But for a guy like Byron Donalds, the outcome was a disaster. By coming to the negotiating table in the first place, he’d made himself vulnerable to accusations of surrendering to leftist demands from the likes of Gaetz himself. Donalds’ bill, Gaetz said on the House floor in mid-September, “continues the Ukraine policy … in the omnibus conservatives were against” and “is a permission slip for Jack Smith to continue his election interference as they are trying to gag the former president of the United States and the leading contender for the Republican nomination.” 

Donalds tried to push back at the time, telling reporters that “I would challenge my colleague from Florida to create a coalition that tries to actually get a victory for the American people.” But Gaetz didn’t need to build a coalition to play the spoiler role he’d built for himself; he just needed to spike the efforts of folks like Donalds as not good enough to pass. 

By the end, Donalds joined the chorus of objectors to McCarthy’s bipartisan package—making him the late arrival to the place Gaetz had been camped out all along. In fact, Donalds said he opposed the final bill, but did not participate in the vote itself: The vote had closed, he claimed on Twitter, before he could arrive to cast his vote against it. 

“Your excuse is very convenient,” read one typical reply. “I thought you were on the up and up, you’re sounding like a sellout.” 

Gaetz blocked Donalds’ package and spent weeks soaking up the limelight; Donalds saw his negotiated package go up in smoke and spent the weekend dodging accusations he’d become a RINO squish. If you’re wondering why more and more hardline lawmakers are taking the path of chaos these days, ask yourself: Now that the dust has settled, would you rather be Donalds or Gaetz?

Hangin’ With Gavin

Led by an aging president and his unpopular veep, the Democratic Party may soon find itself desperate for new leadership. Does California Gov. Gavin Newsom fit the bill? David Drucker spent some time hanging around the governor last week while the governor was hanging around the GOP presidential debate, which happened on Newsom’s home turf at the Reagan Presidential Library:

California’s affable, telegenic chief executive holds court with reporters, spars with conservative activists, and mixes it up with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Newsom does it all with a seemingly permanent smile on his face, with the easygoing disposition of a politician enjoying the fruits of the pressure-free spotlight that accompanies promoting someone else’s White House bid. The governor was dispatched here, to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, by President Joe Biden, to do just that.

“I revere the president of the United States. I’m here having his back,” Newsom tells a throng of journalists Wednesday in the spin room at this Reagan shrine, site of the latest Republican debate, televised by Fox Business Network. The governor hasn’t been doing anything more than run-of-the-mill surrogate duty for Biden. But the president’s age—he turns 81 next month—leads to inevitable questions about which White House contest Newsom might have in mind: Biden’s in 2024 or his own in 2028?

Newsom is a smooth operator, with political abilities that have earned him glowing praise from Democratic strategists and even grudging respect from Republican ones. Nobody questions his ability to campaign and communicate. But his ability to govern is a thornier matter, and several issues that have proliferated under Newsom’s watch threaten to cap his national ambitions:

Federal estimates put California’s homeless population at roughly 170,000. According to the Los Angeles Times, homelessness in Los Angeles County spiked 9 percent in 2022 and jumped 10 percent in the L.A. proper. In Cal Matters, veteran columnist Dan Walters reports on crime statistics issued by the state showing violent crime in California increased 6.1 percent since 2021, with property crime up 6.2 percent and robberies soaring 10.2 percent.

Meanwhile, gas costs an average of $6.08 per gallon in California, the highest of any state in the union (Newsom claims the oil companies are price gouging), and the state’s median price tag for a house also tops the country. Newsom easily survived a 2021 recall attempt and was handily reelected last year, winning with 59.2 percent. But during his tenure, many Californians have voted with their feet, with approximately 800,000 of them moving elsewhere from 2020 to 2023 according to some studies—leading to the state losing a representative in Congress, a first.

Some Democrats in California concede Newsom needs to make progress on these issues if he wants to realize his national aspirations, though they tend to say so only privately. Republicans, obviously, are happy to point out the governor’s vulnerabilities. “We can’t be successful as a country if people aren’t even safe to live in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during the debate, in a dig at Newsom. (The two are scheduled for a one-on-one debate later this fall.) 

Read the whole thing here.

Notable and Quotable

“I fear that attempting to vacate Speaker McCarthy at this juncture is a bad idea that will lead to worse outcomes for conservatives. Signed, The only still-serving coauthor and cosponsor of the motion to vacate Speaker Boehner.”

Rep. Thomas Massie, responding to Matt Gaetz’s promise to attempt to depose Kevin McCarthy, October 1, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.