Will Kevin McCarthy Fight Back?

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy addresses reporters after a House Republican caucus meeting on September 19, 2023. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

T-minus 12 days until government funding runs dry, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy may be on the verge of issuing hardline Republicans a double-dog dare to shut down the government. He’s considering bringing to the House floor a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through October that, as of Tuesday, doesn’t appear to have the votes to pass.

The saga is the latest illustration of the difficulty House GOP leaders are facing as they try to cobble together consensus with a razor-thin majority that itself is bitterly divided over how to govern with control of only one chamber of Congress. And at the end of the day, the energy spent on these battles won’t make a dent in federal spending: The CR at the center of the intra-GOP bickering would be dead on arrival in the Senate and has no chance of getting President Joe Biden’s signature. 

Over the weekend, some House Freedom Caucus (HFC) members joined mainstream Republicans to negotiate a CR that pairs steep spending cuts (it slashes all non-defense discretionary spending by 8 percent) with border security measures, but which doesn’t include disaster funding or aid to Ukraine as requested by the Biden administration. Short of passing 12 appropriations bills through both chambers of Congress—which would fund the government for the entirety of fiscal year 2024—the CR looks to be the only way to avert a government shutdown. 

Shortly after the CR was released, some HFC members and other hardliners pledged they’d vote against it. Since then, more than 15 hardline Republicans have come out against the bill. If all Democrats vote against the CR as expected, House GOP leadership can only afford to lose four votes. 

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz sees the CR as a “167-page surrender to Joe Biden,” he told Politico. Even Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, who had a baby in August, said she would come to Washington to vote “no” if necessary, an aide told a reporter with The Hill.

If hardliners stick to the pledges, it sets the House up to swallow—with the help of Democratic votes—whatever stopgap solution the Senate passes without the opportunity for any compromises.

Even some of McCarthy’s critics have conceded as much: “One path is where we offer something, and the American people can see what we stand for,” House Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry told reporters Tuesday. “The other path is quite honestly accepting whatever the Senate sends us.” Some groups more closely aligned with the HFC on spending matters have even endorsed the CR negotiated over the weekend, including FreedomWorks and Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation.

But since the August recess, some hardline Republicans have pushed McCarthy into a corner, pledging that if he moves forward with a short-term spending bill they will call for a floor vote to vacate the chair (i.e. remove him as speaker).

For months, McCarthy’s strategy has mostly been to placate his toughest critics in the conference, from agreeing to write the 12 appropriations bills to include a much lower spending level than what he negotiated in the debt ceiling deal he struck with Biden, to endorsing a formal impeachment inquiry into Biden last week.

Abandoning this strategy of appeasement is politically risky for McCarthy. If the negotiated CR fails and the House is forced to rely on Democratic votes to pass a Senate version, hardline Republicans look poised to call for a motion to vacate. 

So far, however, McCarthy allies have been bullish on the speaker’s chances of surviving such a vote.

But for McCarthy, playing hardball now still risks the support he needs to hang onto his job in the long run, Josh Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute told The Dispatch. “I think he is concerned about losing sway within his conference,” Huder said. “He’d struggle to stay on as speaker.”

The House Freedom Caucus is trying to put McCarthy in a position where “he keeps the government open or he loses his job,” Huder said. 

It increasingly seems like the California Republican has no other choice than to take the risk, and he’s started souring on niceties. In an expletive-laden private House GOP meeting last week, he essentially dared his critics to call for a motion to vacate. “Move the f—ing motion,” he said. And he took a dig at Rep. Victoria Spartz, an Indiana Republican who is retiring at the end of this Congress, after she called him a weak speaker. “Anybody who criticizes you has never worked harder than you,” he told CNN’s Manu Raju.

The latest fight over the CR has also made clear fractures among the HFC and some hardline Republicans. Rep. Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican who led negotiations for the CR, got into a social media spat with Gaetz, who is not a HFC member but has been the most prominent member calling for McCarthy’s removal as speaker.

“At the end of the day, you know, members gotta decide, do you want to secure the border or not? Do you want to cut federal spending or not?” Donalds told The Dispatch Monday. Others agreed.

“Unfortunately, some of my colleagues don’t think that’s good enough. They want to hide behind some other rhetoric. They want to hide behind, ‘Oh, we need to do more on DOJ or do more on this or that or the other,’” Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican who was also involved in negotiating the CR, said on the Guy Benson radio show Monday. He added that he considers the CR “a win” that, if passed, would “force the Democrats to have to react.”

“Probably 80 or 90 percent of the Republican conference wants to get a CR done,” Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, told The Dispatch. “And then the Freedom Caucus, I think, is really angling to either further embarrass McCarthy or put him in a precarious position where they might bring him down.”

The House Rules Committee voted to advance the CR in a procedural move on Monday night, but it’s unclear whether that will make it to the floor this week. On Monday, lawmakers said the goal was to have a vote Thursday, but by Tuesday afternoon, McCarthy had pulled from the calendar another same-day procedural vote that would have teed up the floor showdown for Thursday. McCarthy-aligned Republicans are now working to find a deal on a CR that could win over hardliners

Some members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, meanwhile, have begun negotiations for another version, a “clean” CR that has no policy concessions for conservatives, but would include disaster relief aid, Politico reported. Some moderate Republicans are also discussing joining hands with Democrats if the CR fails a floor vote this week, according to CNN. And House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries may meet Wednesday with the Problem Solvers Caucus, Politico reported.

But that may be the point of no return for McCarthy and his leadership team. A staffer for a mainstream Republican told The Dispatch that any plan to side with Democrats is “definitely not being talked about” in their office.

Working with Democrats “would make the Freedom Caucus go nuclear,” another Republican staffer with a McCarthy-aligned member, granted anonymity to speak candidly, told The Dispatch.

But for now, the hardliners seem dug in. “All of you guys are asking me why I don’t support it. I’d love to know why these guys are supporting it,” Rep. Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican and HFC member who has been one of McCarthy’s most outspoken critics, told reporters Monday. 

When asked by The Dispatch what the end goal was for members like him who opposed the CR, he said the only path forward for Republicans is to pass the 12 appropriations bills by September 30—a near impossibility.

“I would rather we get something done but I’m stunned to see that here we are, sitting here again, two weeks before the end of the fiscal year,” Biggs said. “I’m trying to think, have we ever passed 12 fiscal bills? I think maybe once since I’ve been in Congress? So why not? Why don’t we work as hard on that as we are to pass the CR? Why aren’t people burning the midnight oil?” 

A reporter pointed out that it appears the only way McCarthy can appease everyone in his conference is to push through the 12 appropriations bills. 

“That’s the gig,” Biggs responded, then walked away.

Presented Without Comment

On the Floor

The Senate is considering judicial nominees this week and will try again to take up the “minibus” bill that combines three spending bills for the military and veterans affairs, agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, and transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The House may vote on the continuing resolution later this week. The House will also consider the Defense appropriations bill that was derailed from a floor vote last week due to frustration among some hardline Republicans that there had not been an agreement on a topline spending number for all 12 spending bills. 

The House will also vote on a resolution condemning New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who issued a public health order that restricts carrying open and concealed firearms on public areas and state property. A federal judge said the order violated the Constitution. At least one New Mexico Democrat is planning to vote with Republicans.

Key Hearings

The House Armed Services Committee held a hearing Tuesday on “Defense Cooperation with Taiwan.” The hearing probed the policies and programs that the Defense and State departments have in place to provide defense services to Taiwan. Information and livestream available here.

The House Oversight and Accountability’s Subcommittee on Economic Growth convened a hearing Tuesday on “Bidenomics: A Perfect Storm of Spending, Debt, and Inflation.” Information and livestream available here.

The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the “Financial Costs of [Homeland Security Defense Secretary Alejandro] Mayorkas’ Open Border.” Information and livestream available here.

The Senate committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs will hold a hearing Wednesday on artificial intelligence in financial services. Information and livestream here.

Also Wednesday, an economic policy subcommittee of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committee will hold a hearing on “Child Care Since the Pandemic: Macroeconomics Impact of Public Policy Measures.” Information and livestream here.

Of Note

Lawmakers Request Details of Chinese Nationals at Sensitive U.S. Facilities

Watch your back as DC crime rises, Republicans tell Hill staffers 

The Congressional Pickleball Caucus welcomed pros to Dirksen for some early morning action

Rep. Jennifer Wexton will not seek reelection as diagnosis changes

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