In more normal political times, the successful prevention of a government shutdown might be cause for celebration. For Kevin McCarthy, it may instead mark the beginning of the end of his speakership.
After failing to pass a more conservative stopgap spending bill on Friday, the House Republican speaker introduced a different proposal extending government funding for 45 days and allocating $16bn for disaster relief aid. That bill the House on Saturday in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 335 to 91, with 209 Democrats joining 126 Republicans in supporting the legislation.
In a worrisome sign for McCarthy, 90 House Republicans opposed the bill. The speaker still managed to secure the support of most of his conference, but he expressed exasperation with the hard-right holdouts who blocked his initial stopgap proposal, which included severe spending cuts for most federal agencies.
“It is very clear that I tried every possible way, listening to every single person in the conference,” McCarthy told reporters on Saturday. “If you have members in your conference that won’t let you vote for appropriation bills, [don’t] want an omnibus and won’t vote for a stopgap measure, so the only answer is to shut down and not pay our troops: I don’t want to be a part of that team.”
Indeed, McCarthy spent the weeks leading up to the 1 October shutdown deadline attempting to appease his hard-right colleagues. On Thursday night, House Republicans approved three longer-term appropriations bills that included some of the steep cuts demanded by the hard-right Freedom Caucus.
McCarthy had hoped that the House’s ongoing work to pass appropriations bills would diffuse the concerns of Freedom Caucus members, many of whom said they would not back a stopgap bill in any form. But those holdout members were true to their word, opposing every proposal that would extend government funding and prevent a shutdown.
When McCarthy’s original stopgap bill came up for a vote on Friday, 21 Republicans opposed the measure. The hard-right blockade easily sunk the bill because of House Republicans’ extremely narrow majority.
In the end, McCarthy was forced to take a course of action he had avoided for weeks: passing a short-term funding bill with the help of House Democrats. Although Democrats expressed disappointment that McCarthy’s proposal did not include additional funding to support Ukraine’s war efforts, they ultimately provided the speaker with the support he needed to get the bill across the finish line.
The House Democratic leader, Hakeem Jeffries, celebrated the bill’s passage as a complete surrender by McCarthy and his allies, given that the legislation did not include the severe funding cuts outlined in the speaker’s original proposal.
“We went from devastating cuts that would have impacted the health, the safety and the economic wellbeing of the American people, in 24 hours, to a spending agreement that meets the needs of the American people across the board,” Jeffries said on Saturday. “The American people have won. The extreme [‘Make America Great Again’] Republicans have lost. It was a victory for the American people and a complete and total surrender by rightwing extremists, who throughout the year have tried to hijack the Congress.”
Hard-right Republicans had warned that they would move to oust McCarthy as speaker if he collaborated with Democrats on a funding bill, and they have the means to do so. Under the current House rules, it only takes one member to bring a motion to vacate, which forces a vote on removing the sitting speaker. McCarthy’s detractors would only need a simple majority to unseat him.
Hard-right Republicans appeared ready to make good on their threat after the stopgap proposal passed the House. As the House moved to adjourn on Saturday, Congressman Matt Gaetz, a hard-right Republican of Florida, was seen trying to get the attention of the presiding member for another matter of business. The House adjourned before Gaetz could be recognised, but the chamber will be back in session on Monday, when hard-right lawmakers will have another opportunity to take action against McCarthy.
Gaetz previewed a potential effort to oust McCarthy on Tuesday, saying in a floor speech: “The one thing I agree with my Democrat colleagues on is that for the last eight months, this House has been poorly led, and we own that, and we have to do something about it. And you know what? My Democrat colleagues will have an opportunity to do something about that, too, and we will see if they bail out our failed speaker.”
If McCarthy is banking on Democratic support to keep his gavel, he may be sorely disappointed. Politico reported Saturday that Nancy Pelosi, the former Democratic House speaker, was instructing her colleagues not to come to McCarthy’s aid in the event of a vote on vacating the chair.
Despite the grim state of affairs, McCarthy appeared ready for battle on Saturday. After withstanding 15 rounds of voting to win the speakership in January, McCarthy said he wouldn’t go down without a fight.
“If somebody wants to make a motion against me, bring it. There has to be an adult in the room,” McCarthy told reporters. “I’m going to be a conservative that gets things done for the American public, and whatever that holds, so be it because I believe in not giving up on America.”
The coming days will determine what the future holds for McCarthy, but if Gaetz and his allies are successful, the House could soon be looking for a new leader.