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McCarthy faces seemingly impossible task trying to unite House GOP and avoid government shutdown

Debate over GOP funding proposal continues
McCarthy indicates he'll try to move along GOP spending bill likely to die in Senate 05:04

Washington — Facing fresh challenges to his leadership, Speaker Kevin McCarthy is trying to accomplish what at times seems impossible — working furiously to convince House Republicans to come together and pass a conservative bill to keep the federal government open.

It's a nearly futile exercise that could help McCarthy keep his job, but has little chance of actually preventing a federal shutdown. Whatever Republicans come up with in the House is nearly certain to be rejected by the Senate, where Democrats and most Republicans together want to fund the government.

In one dramatic sign of defeat Tuesday, House Republicans were even voting against their own defense bill. During a rowdy afternoon vote, the usually popular bill was turned back from consideration after hard-right conservatives insisted they want to see an overall plan from McCarthy.

The resolution to debate the defense bill failed 212-214, as five Republicans bucked the party to sink it. McCarthy simply walked off the House floor.

With time dwindling, Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to pass the broader government funding legislation and get a bill to President Biden's desk to become law. Otherwise, the U.S. faces massive federal government closures and disruptions. Plans for another vote Tuesday to advance the overall spending bill were shelved.

"The ball's in Kevin's court," said Republican Rep. Ralph Norman of the Freedom Caucus.

McCarthy's balancing act

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks to members of the media following a House caucus meeting at the Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks to members of the media following a House caucus meeting at the Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The latest House government funding proposal, a compromise between members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus and others from the more pragmatic Main Street conservatives, was almost dead on arrival, left sputtering even after McCarthy loaded it up with spending cuts and Republican priorities in a border security package.

Behind closed doors Tuesday, the speaker was trying to stress the political repercussions of a government shutdown to Republicans, warning them that no party wins with a closure.

Unlike a closed-door GOP meeting last week, when an angry and frustrated McCarthy unleashed foul language on his colleagues, he tried a different tack when addressing his members on Tuesday morning in the Capitol basement.

Appearing cool, calm and collected, McCarthy cast the funding plan as just a proposal and left time for rank-and-file members to debate its merits, according to Republicans familiar with the meeting.

Still, one Republican after another rose to speak, telling McCarthy that the current plan would not have their votes. With a slim majority, he needs almost every Republican on board.

Rep. Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma, one of the negotiators for the Main Street group, urged her colleagues later to not let the "perfect be the enemy of the good."

The showdown over the usually popular defense bill shows the difficulty ahead — it was the second time McCarthy had tried to advance the measure. He abruptly withdrew it from consideration last week when conservatives signaled there would be a show of force as they push for broader spending cuts elsewhere.

A divided House GOP

The attempt to soothe tensions among Republicans comes as tempers are flaring and as the majority's big personalities try to seize the upper hand — some trying to lead and others hoping to disrupt any plans for compromise.

Florida's two leading conservatives, Matt Gaetz and newcomer Byron Donalds, are sniping in the halls and across social media, as Gaetz criticizes the deal Donalds and others struck as insufficiently conservative.

And freshmen GOP Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana pointedly attacked McCarthy as a "weak speaker."

One seasoned Republican lawmaker, Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, warned the infighting could derail the House GOP, much the way it did for past speakers like John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Both retired earlier than expected amid constant threats of being ousted.

Womack said he fears there is a "larger fight" brewing in the House GOP conference "that is more of a personality nature because of the conflict between certain members and the speaker."

Rep. Matt Gaetz talks to reporters as he leaves a House Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 19, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Matt Gaetz talks to reporters as he leaves a House Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 19, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The monthlong funding package that McCarthy is pushing would impose steep spending cuts of more than 8% on many government services, while sparing defense and veterans accounts. It would last for 31 days in order to buy the House Republicans time to approve the more traditional appropriations bills needed to fund the government.

The White House issued a memo detailing cuts from the Republican plan, saying it would mean fewer Border Patrol agents, school teacher aids, Meals on Wheels for seniors and Head Start slots for children.

"Extreme House Republicans are playing partisan games with peoples' lives and marching our country toward a government shutdown," the White House said, "instead of working in a bipartisan manner to keep the government open and address emergency needs for the American people."

Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer opened the chamber warning of the steep cuts Republicans are planning with their "cruel" and "reckless" spending plan.

At its core, House Republicans are trying to undo the deal McCarthy reached with Mr. Biden earlier this year to set federal funding levels as part of the debt ceiling fight. Conservatives rejected that measure then, even though it was approved and signed into law, and they are trying to dismantle it now.

McCarthy had tried to rally Republicans around a stopgap funding plan he cast as a "bottom-up" approach to legislating negotiated by his various factions.

But House Republicans are late to the effort, with time running short to act. Whatever bills they pass are certain to run aground in the Senate, where bipartisan groups of senators have already started approving their own funding bills, some at levels higher than the Biden-McCarthy agreement.

The roughly dozen Republicans who have voiced displeasure at McCarthy's proposal see the current impasse as a make-or-break moment to hold the speaker to commitments to drastically cut topline government spending.

"If my party is not going to stand up, what is the right thing to do?" said Spartz. "No matter how hard, I don't think anyone else will."

When Spartz was asked whether she would support an effort to oust McCarthy, she said she was "open to everything."

But GOP Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who helped draft the proposal, all but dared his fellow Freedom Caucus members and other "so-called conservative colleagues" to reject the package — particularly its "dream bill" provisions for dealing with the migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico.

"If my conservative colleagues want to vote against that, go explain that," Roy said.

The holdouts want steeper cuts that would adhere to the $1.47 trillion for annual discretionary funding they had initially advanced earlier this year to raise the nation's debt limit.

By passing that opening proposal in April, McCarthy was able to force Mr. Biden and the Democratic-held Senate to the negotiating table and eventually pass a compromise that pared back federal spending. It remains to be seen whether he can pull off such a feat again.

"We're throwing everything on the wall right now," said Rep. Mike Garcia, a Republican of California.

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