GOP hardliners in the House are eager to play a game of chicken over the end-of-the-month deadline to fund federal agencies, seeking to force the White House and Senate to make a choice: Accept a slew of conservative priorities or risk a debilitating government shutdown.
And caught in the middle, once again, is Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
In a private conference call last week, McCarthy urged his colleagues to back a short-term spending deal to avoid an October 1 shutdown and instead focus their energy on the larger funding fight later in the fall, sources on the call told CNN. His argument: The year-long spending bills to fund federal agencies would be better suited to enact cuts and policy changes they have demanded, including on hot-button issues like border security and immigration policy.
And, he argued, if they spend too much time squabbling among themselves, they’ll end up getting jammed by senators in both parties and forced to accept higher spending levels than they’d like.
“It’s a great place to have a very strong fight and to hold our ground,” McCarthy told his colleagues, according to a person on the call, referring to having an immigration fight on the bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security – not on short-term funding legislation that the far-right House Freedom Caucus is pushing to use as a bargaining chip.
As the Senate returns this week after its August recess, and the House reconvenes next week, the two chambers have little time to resolve major differences over funding the government. The two sides are hundreds of billions of dollars apart after McCarthy backed away from a previous deal he cut with the White House and later agreed to pursue deeper cuts demanded by his right-flank.
Now, the two sides will have to work together to punt the fight until potentially early December and pass a short-term funding bill – all as Congress faces other key end-of-the-month deadlines, such as an extension of federal aviation programs, and as a potential impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden looms in the House.
None of it will be that easy.
The White House and senators from both parties want to tie the short-term funding bill to $24 billion in aid to Ukraine and with another $16 billion in much-needed funds for communities ravaged by a spate of natural disasters. But a contingent of vocal House conservatives are furiously opposed to quickly passing more aid to Ukraine – while GOP sources said McCarthy privately voiced displeasure at the White House for formally unveiling its funding request during the congressional recess and not briefing lawmakers.
Moreover, to pass legislation in the House by a majority vote, the chamber must first approve a rule – a procedural vote that is typically only supported by the majority party and opposed by the minority party. Yet several hard-right conservatives told CNN they are prepared to take down the rule over the spending bill if their demands aren’t met.
That would leave McCarthy with a choice: Either side with conservative hardliners and set up a major clash with the White House or cut a deal with Democrats and pass the spending bill by a two-thirds majority, a threshold that would allow them to approve the bill without having to adopt a rule first but could force McCarthy to give more concessions to Democrats.
But if he works with Democrats to circumvent his far-right, McCarthy risks enraging the very members who have threatened to push for a vote to oust him from the speakership.
GOP Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, who leads one of the appropriations subcommittees, acknowledged that they’ll need Democratic support for both a short-term spending patch and for any longer-term bills to fund the government – which he said could put McCarthy in a predicament.
“The challenge for McCarthy, and I’ll be real honest with you, is that if he works with the Democrats, obviously, the Democrats are not going to do it for free. They want something. So, it’s going to be a compromise – one of those really bad words in Washington for some reason,” Simpson told CNN. “Then you’re going to find a resolution introduced on the floor to vacate the chair.”
One GOP lawmaker acknowledged there have been conversations among conservative hardliners about using a “motion to vacate” – a procedural tool that forces a floor vote to oust the speaker – to gain leverage in the funding fight, if they feel like McCarthy isn’t sticking to his spending promises or gives too much away to Democrats.
A few on the right, who were furious with McCarthy over his bipartisan debt ceiling deal, briefly floated the idea of triggering a motion to vacate this summer, but then dialed back their threat when it became clear there wasn’t much support for the move.
McCarthy allies say the hard-liners are playing with fire.
GOP Rep. Don Bacon, who represents a Nebraska swing district won by Biden, said of the right’s hardline approach to spending: “It’s not realistic.”
“This theory that you gotta have 100% (of what you want), and if you don’t get 100, you’ll take zero – it’s not that the way it works,” he added. “And it’s not good for the country.”
Part of the McCarthy strategy to get conservative hardliners on board is to channel their energy on other matters that won’t lead to an end-of-the-month shutdown.
In recent weeks, McCarthy has tried to use the right’s desire to investigate and impeach Biden as part of his argument against a shutdown, warning that their probes into the administration would have to come to a halt if the government were to shut down.
Meanwhile, the House will consider its homeland spending bill on the floor the week they return from recess, giving the right a fresh opportunity to offer amendments and shape their party’s border policy — and train their focus away from the must-pass short-term extension.
Democrats are already trying to pin the blame on any shutdown on the House GOP.
“When the Senate returns next week, our focus will be on funding the government and preventing House Republican extremists from forcing a government shutdown,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a letter to his colleagues on Friday.
How McCarthy deals with the immediate spending demands remains to be seen, including whether he’ll agree to pair the short-term spending bill with any aid to Ukraine.
While Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell is a staunch advocate for Ukraine aid, McCarthy has been more circumspect amid loud calls from his right-flank against pouring more money into the war-torn country.
And as he toured Maui on Saturday, McCarthy acknowledged the need for more disaster relief aid, though it’s unclear if he will separate that package from Ukraine funding — even as the White House and senators in both parties want them to move together.
Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, leader of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told CNN that disaster relief and Ukraine “need to be separated.”
“The president needs to come forward, or the speaker, leadership of the Republican Party, the Democrat Party need to come together to share with the American people what we’re doing, what’s the outcome of this?” Hern said.
Simpson said of tying Ukraine aid to the short-term spending bill: “That’s a tougher sell. Particularly in our conference.”
But advocates of more Ukraine aid say that the longer that Congress waits, the more difficult it will be to approve money needed to deter Russian aggression and the brutality of Vladimir Putin’s war.
“I think we need to get that done because we’re not going to get it done next year, right?” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat. “Once you get truly into the presidential cycle, everything gets that much more difficult.”
Hard-line conservatives are already threatening to make McCarthy’s calculus more complicated if he cuts a short-term spending deal with Democrats. Several of them are already threatening to oppose any rule if the bill falls short of their demands – a tactic that they have employed this Congress to bring the House to a halt. It would take just five Republicans to take down a rule, assuming all Democrats vote against it as they typically do.
Rep. Ralph Norman – who serves on the House Rules Committee, where such a procedural step would originate – told CNN he hasn’t made up his mind yet on the rule.
But the South Carolina Republican said he has concerns about the supplemental request for Ukraine aid, which he said needs to be offset, as well as top-line funding levels for their remaining spending bills.
“There is no appetite for getting our financial house in order by anyone of either party,” he said.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, another hardliner, also hinted that he may vote against both the short-term spending bill and the rule, but when asked for clarification by CNN, he said: “I’m on a very different decision calculus than this.”
Gaetz didn’t respond to a follow-up question about what he meant, but later posted on social media a long list of grievances he has with GOP leadership – including on spending issues – and ended his post with: “We are going to have to seize the initiative and make some changes.”
Some have made their demands directly known to GOP leaders, including Virginia Rep. Bob Good, who said on last week’s conference call that lawmakers shouldn’t fear a potential shutdown, according to a source on the call.
Other Republicans made clear they want no part of a shutdown – something California Rep. Darrell Issa said is “not constructive.”
“We will get there,” Issa said of funding the government. “Now if we get there earlier without a shutdown, the American people are better served.”
When asked how the next few months will shake out, Simpson had some words of warning: “I tell people: buckle up. It’s going to be crazy for September, October, November, December,” Simpson said. “The next four months are going to be wild.”
This story has been updated with additional information.