Shutdown watch: Has McCarthy lost control of the House GOP?

The House speaker offers a plan to avert a shutdown, and far-right lawmakers say no

Illustration of the Capitol building surrounded by scribbled lines
This shutdown debacle proves "McCarthy is powerless"
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had negotiated with fellow Republicans to come up with a plan to avert a looming government shutdown. It calls for cutting spending at domestic agencies — everything but defense — by 8%. The proposal also would revive some Trump-era border restrictions, including renewed construction of a border wall, Axios noted. The plan would keep the government running for a month after the Sept. 30 deadline, buying time to work out a long-term deal. But as soon as he unveiled the proposal just days ago, a dozen far-right members of his own party shot it down, saying they wouldn't support it. 

Some hardliners, like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), have accused McCarthy of taking too weak a stand in the spending fight, and threatened to oust him from his leadership position. Gaetz, who blames McCarthy and other Republican leaders for an Ethics Committee inquiry that threatened his political future, has threatened to introduce a motion to force McCarthy out of the speaker's chair if he pushes a continuing resolution to keep the government funded at current levels while negotiations continue, according to Punchbowl News.

McCarthy tried to satisfy resistant Republicans, most of them members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus, by giving in last week to their demand to order House committees to start impeachment inquiries against President Biden. He expressed frustration when it failed to get them to get behind the proposal for a stopgap measure to keep the government running for a month when, Axios noted. He used the f-word, daring right-wingers to give him the boot. "If you run for office, you should be willing to govern," McCarthy said. Is this public feud an indication that the speaker has lost control of the House GOP?

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What are commentators saying?

This shutdown debacle proves "McCarthy is powerless," said Alex Shephard in The New Republic. "The GOP's far-right flank holds nearly all the power, and they're using it to launch pointless investigations and make demands for draconian cuts." The government shuts down in less than two weeks if this keeps up, and Republicans "are such a mess they can't even fund the military — arguably the easiest thing House Republicans have to do when they're in the majority." McCarthy last week had to pull an $826 billion defense spending bill because he knew he didn't have the votes. The speaker has so little control, it's hard to see how he can avoid a shutdown.

McCarthy is facing some "brutal math," said Rachael Bade in Politico. He can't afford to lose more than four votes if he wants to pass a spending fix, assuming all Democrats oppose whatever he proposes — "which is all but certain." To be sure, the speaker and his allies "have some time to tweak the proposal and win over the holdouts." He has done it before. Don't forget, he narrowly "pushed through a deal to avoid a federal default" earlier this year. But the far-right crowd now standing in his way "felt burned" by that deal, so "things aren't looking so good" for McCarthy this time.

Other Republican speakers, like John Boehner and Paul Ryan, have been "squeezed by the conservative wing," but McCarthy "might have it worse," said Siobhan Hughes and Eliza Collins in The Wall Street Journal. He "made a series of promises to conservative Republicans to win the House speakership and keep legislation on track" when Republicans took back control of the House with one of the thinnest majorities in history. He faces an extremely tough task of avoiding at least a brief shutdown, and then even tougher negotiations on full-year spending with Democrats who are livid over his impeachment inquiry. "Even for a politician who has made his name and reputation on wriggling out of tight spots, this might be a Houdini act too far."

Impossible as it sounds, maybe "Maybe Gaetz is right," said Michelle Cottle in The New York Times. "A House speaker can be successful only with the confidence of the members who put him or her in charge." And to get his party's radicals to let him have the speaker's gavel, he promised to put a cap on spending at 2022 levels or lower, and "effectively gave the hard-liners license to play chicken with the debt ceiling," leaving them livid when he cut a deal with Democrats to avert a default. Plus, he made it easier for them to force him out of the job. "This speaker is often said to have made a deal with the devil." The trouble is, "until someone is willing to break this stalemate, we are all stuck with their twisted, codependent relationship."

What's next?

"Clearly, McCarthy hoped the impeachment sop would be a magic elixir for party unity," said E.J. Dionne Jr. in The Washington Post. "But it could not bring him even the temporary peace he needs" to prevent a shutdown. House Republicans could risk throwing away their narrow majority "with the impeachment sideshow and their signature chaos." But this mess could also hurt President Biden, too, if he's not careful, because the "disillusionment with Washington" is happening on his watch, as he runs for re-election. "He needs to make clear to voters who is to blame for their frustration — and convince them that building back better is still a good idea."

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