For weeks, it’s been clear that the extremist grip on the House Republican conference is making it nearly impossible for Congress to avoid a government shutdown before the money runs out at the end of September. And now the situation is getting steadily worse. Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s nemesis, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, has now convinced a critical mass of his House GOP colleagues to reject any stopgap spending measure (known as continuing resolutions, or CRs, in congressional jargon), even one crafted to right-wing specifications. McCarthy, who cannot get the votes to pass a CR (particularly after Donald Trump urged Republicans to defund the government), is going along with the Gaetz strategy. The idea is to let the government shut down and remain shut down until Congress has enacted all 12 single-subject appropriations bills. Last time that happened was in 1996. As Politico Playbook reports, we’re potentially looking at a very long stalemate.
The premise of the Gaetz plan is to kill what he calls governing by CR. It assumes a government shutdown is inevitable. And instead of using a hard-right CR as the House’s opening move in negotiations with the Senate, the (lengthy) floor debates on the House GOP-crafted appropriations bills will serve that purpose.
With House Republicans miles apart from Democrats (and even some Senate Republicans) on spending levels in a wide array of areas, negotiating and then enacting all these individual appropriations bills would take ages. Absent a CR, the federal government could remain shuttered for an unprecedented period of time.
Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled Senate is moving toward enactment of a CR, which in the normal course of events the House would consider in frenzied late-night sessions just prior to the deadline for avoiding a shutdown. The Gaetz plan means rejecting this overture; if McCarthy even thinks about negotiating to get Democrat votes to pass a CR (just as he did, to the fury of conservative hard-liners, in enacting a debt-limit measure in May), Gaetz will spring a motion to vacate the chair and McCarthy would almost surely lose his gavel, assuming Democrats join Gaetz and other hard-liners in defenestrating the Californian.
But might House Democrats save McCarthy’s bacon and at the same time prevent or end a government shutdown by voting against a motion to vacate the chair? It’s a tantalizing possibility that must have occurred to the tormented McCarthy, for whom kowtowing to Gaetz must be agonizing. But in an interview with Politico, House Minority Whip Katherine Clark made it clear Democrats would demand a high price for any McCarthy rescue effort. The concessions they want would begin with the Speaker returning to the spending-level deal he cut with Joe Biden before the debt-limit vote, which under right-wing pressure he has abandoned in favor of much deeper domestic spending cuts:
We respected the deal that the president made with Speaker McCarthy. And they signed that deal. And 314 of us voted — in an almost equal bipartisan fashion — to support it. And the ink was barely dry when Kevin McCarthy was back trying to placate the extremists in his conference. And he is just telling the American people what matters is him retaining his speakership and they don’t. And so when people come and say, Are Democrats going to help?, it is beyond frustrating.
But that’s not all Democrats want:
We want to get disaster aid out. We want to continue our support for Ukraine. And we want them to end this sham of an impeachment inquiry.
Suffice it to say that if McCarthy can only keep his gavel with Democrats’ help, and abandoning the Biden impeachment inquiry he was forced to undertake is part of the deal, he will alienate the MAGA wing of his conference and his party until the end of time.
McCarthy has regularly shown he is above all a survivor devoted to his own ambitions. But in the current crisis over federal spending, he is really caught in a vise between totally craven surrender to the most irresponsible of his troops or earning their eternal enmity.
Perhaps public reaction to a completely pointless government shutdown that may damage a fragile economy will get McCarthy out of his jam and enable the bipartisan deal that looks so unlikely now. But it probably won’t happen for quite some time. “Nonessential” federal workers and those who rely on the services they provide should hunker down for a long wait.
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