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In Shock Move, McCarthy Avoids Shutdown. Now What?
Washington is rarely surprised by legislative machinations or political maneuvering. Even when cable news hyperbole paints a picture of a country on the verge of chaos, close observers of Capitol Hill and the White House usually have a pretty good feel for how things will work out.
This past weekend was the exception that proves the rule.
While many recognized that Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy might eventually need to pass a stopgap continuing resolution with Democratic votes to keep open—or, more likely, reopen—the federal government, few thought it would so suddenly come to pass. There was a collective gasp—and, in many corners, a sigh of relief—when news broke that McCarthy was opting for a bipartisan bill to keep federal employees at work past Sept. 30, perhaps doing so at his own professional peril.
The contours of Saturday’s deal—a 45-day extension of current spending levels plus extra money for disaster relief—are well reported and need no rehashing here. More telling is what happened just before and what will play out in the days to come.
All year McCarthy has been plagued by a group of about 10 Republican hardliners who have leveraged their relative strength in a narrow majority to dictate the flow of the legislation. McCarthy had tried over the last few weeks to bring his right-wing critics to the table by enticing them with items on their wish lists. As we noted last week:
“McCarthy’s Catch-22: whenever he acquiesces to right wing demands—writing spending bills at levels lower than previously agreed upon, launching an impeachment inquiry against President Biden, or including controversial “culture war” provisions in bills—he erodes the potential for bipartisan support. That, in turn, strengthens the hardliner’s hand even more. And, so far, giving the hardliners what they want hasn’t seemed to produce any additional support for McCarthy’s priorities, including … [passing] a CR.”
Whether it’s “moving the goal post” or just plain gaslighting, the hardliners have been quick to make demands but slow to accept McCarthy’s “yes.” That came to a head on Friday when McCarthy put forth a continuing resolution laden with right-wing demands. The proposal would have imposed a huge 30%, across-the-board spending cut (with exceptions for national defense, the VA, and homeland security), enacted the Republicans’ tough border security plan, and created a commission to help balance the budget. Notably, the plan dropped aid for Ukraine. In essence, the proposed CR package was a handout to the hardliners.
And they responded by biting the hand that was trying to feed them.
Remarkably, rightwing Republicans blocked the CR that was tailormade for them, raising real questions about what—if anything—could pass the House. McCarthy’s assessment just days earlier that a small group of Republicans wanted to “burn the whole place down” looked increasingly astute. By Friday afternoon, a shutdown seemed unavoidable.
McCarthy then surely realized he would never get the hardliner’s support, so he surprisingly pivoted to a bipartisan CR that cut most of the controversial items. The package needed Democratic support to pass, but McCarthy was still able to satisfy the Hastert rule: a majority of the majority supported the package. In the end, the CR passed 335-91. (126 Republicans voted yes, 90 voted no.)
Make no mistake: when the hardliners voted down McCarthy’s first proposal, they lost an opportunity to gain leverage in future negotiations. In the words of progressive New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez via X (Twitter): “we just won a clean 45 day gov extension, stripped GOP’s earlier 30% cuts to Social Security admin etc, staved off last minute anti-immigrant hijinks, and averted shutdown (for now).”
She’s not wrong.
Things in the House may get worse before they get better.
Soon after the vote, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz — perhaps McCarthy’s top critic — announced that he was moving forward with a plan to remove McCarthy.
Yesterday on CNN’S “State of the Union,” Gaetz said:
“I think we need to rip off the Band-Aid. I think we need to move on with new leadership that can be trustworthy. Look, the one thing everybody has in common is that nobody trusts Kevin McCarthy. He lied to Biden. He lied to House conservatives. Kevin McCarthy’s goal was to make multiple contradictory promises to delay everything back up against shutdown politics and at the end of the day, blow past the spending guardrails he had agreed.”
For his part, McCarthy seemed defiant about the likely challenge, responding on CBS’s Face the Nation: “So be it. Bring it on. Let’s get over with it and let’s start governing.”
To oust McCarthy, Gaetz, or another member — Representatives Dan Bishop and Eli Crane have been mentioned — would file a Motion to Vacate, a procedural step available largely because McCarthy conceded to rules changes during the contested speaker election back in January. Once filed and called up, the “privileged” motion must be considered within two legislative days, though procedural steps can be taken to delay or even table the final vote.
If the Motion does see a final vote, only a simple majority of those present is necessary for approval, which would result in the immediate removal of McCarthy as Speaker.
The voting math does not work in McCarthy’s favor. While most Republicans support McCarthy for now, the 10 or more objectors are likely to have enough votes to sink him assuming that all Democrats also oppose the Republican leader.
We are approaching a rare moment in the House when the minority party has huge influence. Democrats could support McCarthy (figuring that the alternative could be worse) or vote “present” (effectively changing the calculus to help McCarthy without actually voting for him). But Democratic help is no guarantee as many in the minority remain upset about McCarthy’s impeachment inquiry of President Biden. And, if those lifelines materialize, expect them to come with policy and process demands. There’s no free lunch in Washington.
Without an alternative to McCarthy emerging that can truly rally support across the Republican conference, it’s less likely that Gaetz’s Motion to Vacate is successful, at least in the short term. But these basic problems with the Republican conference are not going away any time soon. It’s a fair question: can a Republican Speaker be an effective leader when he is hanging on to the gavel only because Democrats are allowing it?
The clock is already ticking on the 45-day CR, and legislative days spent debating who is in charge do little to help pass the appropriations bills needed to keep the government open next month. Saturday’s surprising legislative maneuvering may have been a positive development, but this remains a slow-moving train wreck that is far from over.
Stephen E. Boyd is a Partner at Horizons Global Solutions. Previously, he served as a Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, Chief of Staff for Alabama members in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, and as a Communications Director of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He resides in the Washington, D.C. area. Opinions expressed herein are his own. This news report is not intended to influence or persuade. Contact Stephen at [email protected] or via X at @SEBOYD79 or via LinkedIn.