Washington is braced for a government shutdown – will McCarthy pass the test?

Time for round three of Kevin McCarthy versus the Freedom Caucus

Eric Garcia
Monday 11 September 2023 19:44 BST
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MTG says she won't vote to fund Biden administration unless Congress meets her demands

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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In the words of Marshall Mathers, back to reality.

The House of Representatives will finally return after an extended August recess, leaving them less than two weeks to pass spending bills to avoid a government shutdown, which could be the biggest test of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s speakership.

So far, despite having to go 15 rounds to earn the speaker’s gavel, Mr McCarthy has been able to avoid a revolt from his conference. Despite anger about the deal he brokered with the White House – Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), called it a “s*** sandwich” – he was able to get a majority of his conference to vote for the legislation.

Moreover, he’s so far avoided having the far-right House Freedom Caucus filing a motion to vacate, despite the fact that he agreed to their demand that any single member can file a motion to stage essentially a no-confidence vote in the Speaker. That alone shows just how neutered the hellraising conservatives are compared to the days when they could bring previous speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan to their knees; if none of them have filed a motion, that means they don’t have enough votes to severely wound the speaker.

But now Mr McCarthy is juggling multiple priorities from varying factions. The aforementioned Ms Greene said during a town hall that she would not vote to keep the government open unless her demands were met. Chief among them, Ms Greene wants the House to begin an impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden; the House to defund the office of Special Counsel Jack Smith, and no more funding for the war in Ukraine.

To be certain, all of these would be dead on arrival in the Senate and would even make some House Republicans uncomfortable as Democrats will pillory them for catering to the most far-right faction of the GOP.

But even conservatives have poured cold water on this. Rep Ken Buck (R-CO), a member of the House Freedom Caucus that gave Ms Greene the boot before the recess, said – on former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s show on MSNBC, no less – “the idea that she is now the expert on impeachment, or that she is someone who should set the timing on impeachment, is absurd.”

But Mr Buck warned on Sunday that Mr McCarthy faces a host of other challenges, noting the House will likely have to pass a continuing resolution with Democratic votes, saying “so I think if he reaches across the aisle and against Democrat votes that goes with a higher number that he has promised before. I think that that is the issue really, that I think will cause him problems down the road.”

Of course, Mr McCarthy may not have much of a choice when it comes to having Democrats help him pass a continuing resolution, not unlike how he needed Democratic votes to pass a debt limit increase when 71 Republicans opposed it.

On top of that, Mr Buck noted how some Republicans like fellow Freedom Caucus member Rep Chip Roy (R-TX) want riders to increase funding for security at the US-Mexico border.

“So you take those things put together, and Kevin McCarthy, the speaker, has made promises on each of those issues to different groups. And now it is all coming due at the same time,” he told Ms Psaki.

That alone might cause Mr McCarthy a world of trouble, since the White House and the Democratic Senate would lay the blame squarely at the feet of House Republicans if the government did shut down.

At the same time, House conservatives face immense pressure to extract concessions from Mr McCarthy. After Mr McCarthy made all of those concessions, if they cannot get spending cuts, increased funding for the border or an impeachment inquiry, they will look wholly impotent.

And Democrats are starting to notice. On Friday, Rep Eric Swalwell (D-CA), whom Mr McCarthy removed from the House Intelligence Committee at the beginning of the year, tweeted that Rep Matt Gaetz was making “empty threats” against the speaker and said the Florida Republican “folded like a cheap card table to make McCarthy speaker and will never — I repeat never — make a motion to remove McCarthy.”

In response, Mr Gaetz said simply “Bookmark this tweet.”

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