“It’s Hard To Pass Anything In This Place.”
Speaker Kevin McCarthy is having a tough week as he realizes that maybe Nancy Pelosi really was a disciplined genius by comparison.
“It’s hard to pass anything in this place,” McCarthy joked to reporters, as news that the continuing resolution deal hammered out over the weekend by Republican leaders was facing serious headwinds from the far right. “We started out in a five-seat majority. I got one member who’s now resigned, we’ve got a couple of members who are out as well. Anything we do is pretty tough.”
Former Speaker Pelosi of course had the same number of members—222—in her caucus majority, and she managed to oversee one of the most productive legislative sessions in recent memory: passing the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, benefits for veterans, protection for same-sex marriage, and the Inflation Reduction Act, which is now reverberating with its massive investments in clean energy and climate and historic reductions in prescription drug costs.
This GOP under McCarthy? So far, no bills of any consequence. In fact, they can’t come to agreement within their own party on a budget, once again. The dysfunction is so acute that McCarthy appears to have thrown up his hands, instructing the Main Street GOP caucus members and the Freedom Caucus hardliners to hash out a deal themselves, while daring those who oppose his leadership to “file the fucking motion” to vacate the chair if they want.
It’s a bit early in the week to fill up on popcorn, but Democrats can at least lean back and enjoy watching the GOP eat its own. Let’s take a look at where things stand.
A continuing resolution that’s about to be discontinued
Main Streeters and the Freedom Cauckateers met on Sunday to work out a proposed budget because, apparently, McCarthy’s office finally understands that anything that comes with his name already on it is presumptively DOA.
But wait a minute, wasn’t the budget already agreed to earlier in the year? Didn’t we raise the debt ceiling after McCarthy caved to Biden on this? The Senate sure seems to think so, and in a strongly bipartisan way. Its budget is already done, far ahead of time, because it was based on the deal brokered earlier in the year, and at least Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remains willing to honor it. The House, however, is desperate to come up with its own budget, earlier agreement be damned. When it comes to negotiating on a final bill with the Senate, its negotiators hope to at least have something they can point to on their side.
The House deal that emerged, agreed to by the leaders of the two GOP factions, would fund the government through the end of October in order to buy time for a more permanent budget. But it contains poison pills that make it a non-starter for the Senate, including an 8 percent cut across the board to domestic programs other than for the Pentagon and veterans. It also is very restrictive and cruel toward immigrants, which makes it appealing to the far-right but repulsive to anyone with compassion and empathy.
None of this was part of the earlier deal.
Still, if the leadership had hoped that these cuts and callous policies toward migrants would placate the most radical elements of the GOP, then they miscalculated. Within moments of the deal’s announcement, several extremists took to social media to denounce it.
Eating their own
The number far-right House members who have come out against the bill since Sunday already spells trouble for its passage. These include well known trolls such as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). By some counts, there are 16 GOP representatives who are publicly opposed to it and still others uncommitted. The GOP can only afford to lose four votes on the bill.
What do these extremists want? Some want a shutdown of funding for the Department of Justice. Some want restrictions on funding for Ukraine. Others don’t think the cuts go deep enough. Others just seem to want to burn it all down. Freedom Caucus leaders, unaccustomed to having to govern and defend the deal they reached, seemed unprepared for the blowback.
Case in point: Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL). Donalds helped broker the deal this weekend, so Rep. Gaetz has taken to calling the bill the “Donalds CR,” referring to the continuing resolution. Donalds is normally a darling of the right because he’s Black yet willing to give the conservative middle finger to just about everything left of center. Donalds put out a statement defending the CR as a “win for the conservative movement,” adding, “I didn't come to Washington to be hoodwinked by party insiders, the swamp, or the uniparty. I came to get the job done.”
But Gaetz is hoping either that the Justice Department and Special Prosecutor Smith are defunded in the budget, or that the government shuts down and accomplishes the same. Gaetz posted,
The problem with the Donalds CR is that it gets the job done for Jack Smith!
A visibly frustrated Donalds replied,
Matt, tell the people the truth. The DOJ will operate whether the government is shut down or not. Special Counsel’s [sic] have always exempted themselves from shutdowns. What’s your plan to get the votes to defund Jack Smith? You’ll need more than tweets and hot takes!!
The “what’s your plan” response is particularly noteworthy, as the Freedom Caucus has never had to “plan” let alone govern before. It was far simpler to be the caucus of “no” than to sit down and actually work out a deal.
Gaetz isn’t the only vocal critic. Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-IN) called McCarthy a “weak Speaker” while staking her opposition to the CR.
McCarthy shot back. “Anybody who criticizes you has never worked harder than you. And I mean, if Victoria is concerned about fighting stronger, I wish she would’ve run again and not quit,” he told reporters, referring to her decision to retire and spend more time with her teenage kids.
An “unmitigated disaster”
As intraparty tensions grow and a deadline looms for a shutdown, those in the party responsible for appropriations see big trouble and soon.
“It’s an unmitigated disaster right now on the majority side,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR), told MSNBC on Monday. “I’m fearful of what this leads to.”
A big test for the CR will arrive as soon as Wednesday, when the Rules Committee must advance the resolution to the floor and it will face a simple procedural vote. All Democrats, by tradition, will vote against the bill in Committee and on the House floor, meaning the GOP will need to move its own bill forward. That shouldn’t normally be hard when you have the majority, but now there is considerable doubt over whether it can do so, with 16 of its members already on record as opposed to the resolution in principle.
If it flounders, there will be no CR and the government almost certainly will shut down at the end of September. The fault will lie once again with House Republicans. Somewhat mortifyingly, McCarthy may have little choice but to go back once more to the Democrats to break the deadlock, just as he did last time the GOP’s bluff got called on the budget. That means a future budget bill that will look a lot more like the Senate’s, perhaps with a few concessions around things like immigration.
But McCarthy is in trouble here, too. Any deal with the opposition could spell the end of his speakership. Someone like Gaetz, who has already threatened to file a motion to vacate, could topple McCarthy if he had a few others with him, and if the Democrats all voted in favor.
Democrats of course know this, and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries won’t make it easy for McCarthy to maneuver. Their help and support on the budget and any motion to vacate, for example, could come on condition that the budget deal look more or less exactly like the Senate’s. That would mean McCarthy truly becomes a “Speaker in Name Only”—but doing the work of the Democrats and their budget.
I changed my mind. Perhaps it is already popcorn time.