Kevin McCarthy’s struggle to become House speaker should have been the most embarrassing moment in his political career. The U.S. House of Representatives had to vote 15 times before he was able to secure enough support in his party to lead the lower chamber.
But months later, the fight over whether to fund or shut down the federal government is the latest in a series of humiliations.
The speaker failed to get his party in line and had to rely on Democrats to pass a resolution funding the government for 45 days, which would delay a potential shutdown until Nov. 17.
The House approved the short-term funding Saturday afternoon, 335-91, with Democrats overwhelmingly backing the resolution.
It is unclear if the Senate will approve the measure or if President Biden will sign it. If the Senate and the president approve the House bill before midnight Saturday, the federal government will not shut down.
Democrats had asked for more time to examine the 71-page resolution, which they complained had been given to them less than one hour before the scheduled vote. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the Democratic minority leader, used his “magic minute,” an unlimited floor speech only party leaders can use, to speak for 45 minutes Saturday afternoon, giving his allies more time to read the bill.
McCarthy’s need to rely on Democratic votes to fund the government leaves him weaker than ever. For much of September, a handful of conservatives had repeatedly torpedoed his spending bills, sinking any hope of projecting Republican unity to Senate Democrats and Biden.
The 45-day funding resolution only delays McCarthy’s inevitable choice: Shut down the government, or betray the conservative hard-liners who can make or break his speakership — and enrage former President Trump, who has made clear that he wants to see the government shut down unless conservatives get everything they demand.
The conservative hardliners, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Dan Bishop of North Carolina, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Andy Biggs of Arizona, all voted against the resolution. President Trump has egged on that group, repeatedly insisting that he is eager to see the government shut down.
It remains unclear what policy wins House conservatives can realistically hope to secure with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House. But it is clear that a shutdown is unlikely to sit well with voters.
Shutting down the government has never worked for Republicans, said Ed Rollins, a GOP strategist and former senior advisor to President Reagan. “You get blamed for it,” he said. “A lot of people are unhappy about it. They see no purpose in it.”
“Kevin is in a very precarious situation,” Rollins said.
McCarthy is the most visible Republican in Congress and his role as a speaker usually commands authority and respect from his party. But is the title of speaker worth all this indignity?
“There’s no secret there’s a giant leadership vacuum in the Republican Party,” Alex Conant, a Republican strategist, told The Times. “We’re seeing that play out on the House floor, where nobody can force every member to fall in line.”
Historically, when Republicans shut down the government, they had a clear objective. The last shutdown occurred under then-President Trump, when Republicans controlled Congress, over funding for a wall at the Southern border. Under President Obama, the fight was over appropriating funding for the Affordable Care Act, his signature legislation.
This time, the messaging is not clear, making a complicated issue even harder for voters to understand.
“I would say that the messaging is bad but that would suggest there’s a message,” Conant told The Times. “There’s no communications plan. There’s no political strategy.” He added: “It’s just an unmitigated disaster for Republicans.”
On Saturday, House Republicans seemed to finally land on a clear objective: cutting funding for Ukraine. The House bill is identical to the Senate bill, with the exception of funding for Ukraine, Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) asserted in a speech on the floor.
“If you are telling the American people with a straight face that you would shut the government down for Ukraine, then shame on you,” Lawler said.
Earlier this week, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate sent the House a clean no-frills spending bill that included Ukraine funding. McCarthy, bowing to conservatives, refused to give that bill a floor vote. But he put forth a similar version.
By stripping Ukraine funding from the legislation, McCarthy made it more palatable for Republicans, many of whom have grown hostile to sending the war-torn nation more military aid. Democrats and Senate Republicans remain overwhelmingly in support of sending Ukraine more aid, though that position has become increasingly unpopular among the GOP base.
The fact that McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are on opposite sides of this battle reflects the realities that lawmakers up for reelection face, Conant said.
The Kentucky senator is focused on his party reclaiming the Senate majority. For Republicans to do that, their candidates need to be able to win in purple states, Conant said. “McConnell recognizes the political damage that’s going to be done to Republicans by a shutdown,” he said. “He’s putting as much pressure as he can to keep the lights on.”
But in the House, McCarthy has to consider his members who are concerned about losing primary challenges from conservatives who are loyal to Trump, Conant said. Aligning with Trump and bashing an incumbent GOP lawmaker as a Republican in name only is a way to win in dark red districts — and lose in purple ones.