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As House Republicans bicker, the government shutdown threat grows

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is working to contain a revolt by hard-line members of his party that could threaten his job as speaker and a potential government shutdown.
Kevin Dietsch
Getty Images
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is working to contain a revolt by hard-line members of his party that could threaten his job as speaker and a potential government shutdown.

Tensions among House Republicans came to a head Thursday morning, as Speaker Kevin McCarthy struggled to unite his narrow majority around a plan to avert a government shutdown at the end of the month — while protecting his job as speaker from far-right opposition.

Hard-line Republicans have spent the week explicitly tying McCarthy's political fate to the spending fight in a chaotic push for further control. The dynamic has ground the House to a standstill, just weeks before the deadline to fund the government or shut down.

McCarthy dared his critics at a Thursday morning meeting of House GOP members to stop talking about ejecting him from his job and start the formal process of doing it, saying, "'If you want to file a motion to vacate, then file the f****** motion,' " according to Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla.

A motion to vacate is the technical step needed to strip a speaker of his or her job. It is the same tool used by far-right members that eventually led Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to step down and resign from Congress in 2015.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a steadfast critic of McCarthy, threatened on Tuesday that he would force a vote on the House floor to oust the speaker, arguing he was "out of compliance" with the agreement he struck with hard-line conservatives to secure the gavel in January.

After the meeting, the speaker downplayed the exchange, telling reporters, "threats don't matter, and sometimes people do those things because of personal things, and that's all fine." McCarthy pointed to the 15 rounds of voting that had to be held in January before he was elected speaker as a contrast between his speakership and the ones before him.

"I'm a little Irish, OK," he said. "So I don't walk away from a battle."

He said he knew members may try to use leverage to get things they want, and said, "you know what, if it takes a fight I'll have a fight." He ignored a question on whether he had the votes to defeat any effort to oust him.

California Republican Rep. John Duarte told reporters "broadly there's a lot of support for the speaker."

McCarthy's personal fate and the spending fight

The showdown comes as House Republicans are struggling to pass appropriations bills to keep the government open by the end of the month. The severity of the situation became clear on Wednesday when Republican leaders canceled plans to vote on a defense spending bill. Defense spending is typically one of the easiest measures for Congress to approve, but the political rancor is upending even the most basic functions of the House.

The failure on defense spending followed objections from the same hard-line conservatives threatening McCarthy. It has become a persistent dysfunctional dynamic at a time when lawmakers are under pressure to move quickly to avoid a shutdown.

Lawmakers are heading home for the weekend without any vote on any spending bill or short-term funding bill this week, and no clear plan for how to fund the government past Sept. 29, all while the Senate is moving a package of three spending bills through the chamber with significant bipartisan support.

The contrast between the House and Senate was on full display Thursday as the Senate voted 91-7 to advance a package of three spending bills just hours after the fraught GOP meeting in the House.

McCarthy tried to assure reporters that Congress could pass a stop-gap bill, despite the current conflict among his ranks.

When we come back we're not going to leave, we're going to get this done, nobody wins in a government shutdown.

Pressed if it was likely to come up next week, McCarthy dodged, saying "a lot of things are likely in life."

"When we come back we're not going to leave, we're going to get this done, nobody wins in a government shutdown," McCarthy said. He vowed the House would pass spending bills and negotiate with the Senate. But with days to go before the September deadline it's unlikely both chambers could process all of the bills and negotiate a funding compromise without some short-term bill to give more time.

North Carolina GOP Rep. Richard Hudson, a top ally of McCarthy's, pushed back on the idea a shutdown was inevitable, saying, "I don't agree that's it's likely, we've still got a week."

Hard-line demands stoke frustration

Concerns among the hard-liners are varied.

Rep. Dan Bishop, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said he would not vote to move forward with any of the remaining 11 appropriations bills until he saw topline numbers for all of them "that are satisfactory." Other members of the Freedom Caucus have said they will not vote for a defense bill that funds the Pentagon's "woke" policies — referring to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, programs to provide specialized health care to transgender service members and a policy to reimburse members who travel for reproductive care. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is a close ally of McCarthy but among the most extreme members of the conference, has said she will not support a spending bill that includes money to support the war in Ukraine.

The Freedom Caucus also opposes a short-term stopgap measure to keep the government open — known as a continuing resolution — unless that measure includes key conservative demands.

It's not clear the conference can coalesce around any plan to avert a shutdown, and the clock is ticking. Mast shared McCarthy's frustration with trying to function under persistent threats from some within their own party.

"Stop holding up everybody's work," Mast said. "Stop holding it over people's head like it's this noose that you're gonna try to get somebody to walk into."

Mast pushed McCarthy's critics to make a choice.

"If you have a direction that you want to take, then step up in front of the microphone and voice what that direction is that you want to take," Mast said. "Otherwise, get the f*** out of the way."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lexie Schapitl
Lexie Schapitl is an associate producer with NPR's Washington Desk, where she does a little bit of everything. She can be found reporting from Capitol Hill, producing the NPR Politics podcast or running the NPR Politics social media channels. She has also produced coverage of the January 6th Committee hearings, Trump's first impeachment and the 2020 and 2022 campaigns.
Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is a congressional correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk.