Kevin McCarthy and House Republicans will own this shutdown

House speaker wanted to keep his majority happy and will please nobody. He now owns a government shutdown if it happens

Eric Garcia
Friday 15 September 2023 19:22 BST
McCarthy responds to threats to oust him as speaker: 'I don't walk away from a battle'

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Back in May, we at Inside Washington warned that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s deal on the debt limit would signal the beginning of the end for him. That cut against the grain of what everyone was saying since much of the Beltway marveled at how the speaker who had to go 15 rounds with conservatives to get the gavel effectively muzzled them.

But back then, my argument was that Mr McCarthy angered conservatives by icing them out to avoid a default, but they would remember it when it actually came time to pass spending bills at or below the agreed upon levels. Inevitably, members of the House Freedom Caucus would bring up the demands they claim they had in writing (we still haven’t seen the written agreement, if there is one).

If they didn’t extract some kind of spending cuts or concessions they could discuss on Fox News or other conservative media, they would look utterly neutered by a speaker conservatives never trusted. My suspicions were confirmed when Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) told me her price for backing Mr McCarthy for speaker and voting on the debt limit: an impeachment of President Joe Biden and a vote on her bill to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth.

Now the bill has come due for Mr McCarthy’s debts. The House left for the Jewish high holidays with only two weeks left before the government runs out of money. And if the government were to actually shut down, the blame would fall squarely on the speaker’s shoulders.

On one end, the House team pulled a vote on the defence spending bill – one that likely would not have passed the Senate any way because they saw so many poison pill provisions – because of a lack of votes.

Similarly, it does not seem that his attempt to mollify his most conservative colleagues by opening an impeachment inquiry will satisfy his most hardline critics like Rep Matt Gaetz (R-FL).

Mr McCarthy’s one saving grace is that no members have actually filed a motion to vacate to depose him. He all but dared his conference to “file the f***ing motion,” which he knows they won’t do because his critics don’t have to votes to depose him and as they showed in January, they don’t have a viable alternative to replace him.

In truth, the conservatives should rightly be blamed because they refused to vote to keep the government open unless their demands will be met. But they likely will not face consequences since most of them hail from safely Republican districts, and if anything, their voters will probably reward them for shutting down the government.

Similarly, House Democrats likely won’t suffer since they will get to say they are more than willing to team up with reasonable Republicans if they want to pass a continuing resolution.

But, as House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told me at a Tuesday presser, they would not vote for “right-wing ransom notes,” which allows Democrats to portray themselves as sensible dealmakers. The fact that Democrats bailed out Mr McCarthy and saved the debt limit agreement earlier this year gives them further credibility.

In addition, few people would blame the US Senate since both sides continue to pass appropriations bills with input from both sides. As we reported this past week, both sides seem equally annoyed at the House and Mr McCarthy.

As a result, the speaker and his frontliners will shoulder the majority of the blame from the voting public. General election and independent voters will likely see Mr McCarthy as captive to the most extreme faction of his conference and launching a wild goose chase inquiry into a Democratic president.

And that will likely doom more than enough Republicans who make up his wafer-thin majority, specifically in districts that voted for Mr Biden, who on the campaign trail would make hay out of the subject as he continues to attack “MAGA Republicans.” This doesn’t even factor in the effects of a government shutdown on federal workers in neighboring Virginia, where Republicans hope to flip the state house.

But Mr McCarthy can’t have a clean continuing resolution on the floor or it will confirm everything conservatives have ever thought of him; that he lacks ideology and is part of the very “swamp” they detest.

Ultimately, the speaker set himself up for failure the moment he cut these deals back in January to lead the House. While some say that this spending fight was never supposed to happen, there was never going to be any alternative. And unfortunately for Mr McCarthy, he will be left holding all the blame.

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