WASHINGTON (AP) — With little time left to prevent a government shutdown, the House is in a familiar position: effectively paralyzed as conservatives feud with Speaker Kevin McCarthy over matters large and small.
McCarthy has pushed the Republican conference to embrace a short-term funding plan that would include a sweeping Republican proposal for the southern border. But a small group of hard-line conservatives has defied the speaker in a quest to get rid of stopgap funding plans, known as continuing resolutions, even if opposing them means forcing a government shutdown.
It’s left McCarthy at an impasse. The California congressman will likely be left with the political damage of a shutdown unless he turns to Democrats for help in passing a bipartisan bill. But working with Democrats would give hard-right Republicans reason to remove him as speaker.
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Here’s what to know about the House Republicans’ conflict and where it may be headed:
WHAT ARE THEY FIGHTING OVER?
At its core, the conflict is over how far to the right House Republicans should push legislation — and what level of compromise, if any, is acceptable.
Pragmatic-minded Republicans acknowledge they hold just one chamber of Congress and must negotiate legislation with a Democratic president and the Democratic-held Senate. But some conservatives, organized around the House Freedom Caucus — as well as the score of Republicans who opposed McCarthy’s bid to become speaker — have taken combative stands as they try to disrupt business as usual in Washington.
They are determined to not only slash spending levels but remake the U.S. government, which they view with growing enmity and criticize as “woke and weaponized.” Some conservatives have downplayed the effects of a government shutdown and even contend that it would have benefits.
“The Biden regulatory agenda comes to a grinding halt with a government shutdown,” Russell Vought, an influential strategist among the right-wing lawmakers, posted on social media this week.
In the current clash over funding the government, the debate has centered on whether Congress should use stopgap funding legislation to keep government offices running and paychecks for federal employees flowing beyond Friday, when the government’s fiscal year expires.
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WHAT IS MCCARTHY DOING?
McCarthy is urging his fellow House Republicans to avoid the political pain of causing a shutdown as he tries to protect his narrow House majority. But because Republicans had such a slim majority to begin with, even a handful of holdouts can demand concessions or prevent the party from moving forward on legislation.
In his eight months as speaker, McCarthy has at times surprised Washington with his ability to maneuver with his fragile majority. But now that he is facing a government shutdown, he is caught between commitments he made during the two major crises Congress faced this year: the fight over choosing a House speaker and negotiations to suspend the nation’s debt limit.
McCarthy had to win support from almost every House Republican in his grueling bid to become speaker in January. To do so, he made a range of concessions, including an agreement to cut government spending to certain levels and pass each of the 12 annual appropriations bills individually.
Then in June, as he negotiated with President Joe Biden to suspend the nation’s debt limit, McCarthy agreed to hold the government’s annual discretionary funding to $1.59 trillion. That deal passed the House, in part due to support from Democrats.
“He’s made promises to part of the conference with the deal that he cut with President Biden on certain numbers,” said Republican Rep. Ken Buck, who is part of the House Freedom Caucus. “Then he’s made promises to get elected speaker to a different part of the conference. And those two numbers are pretty far apart.”
McCarthy’s allies have insisted the speaker has kept his word and is still fighting for the spending levels he promised Republicans in January.
WHO ARE THE OTHER KEY PLAYERS?
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a bombastic conservative and close ally to former President Donald Trump, has emerged as the chief foil to McCarthy. The Florida Republican rallied GOP lawmakers to resist McCarthy’s bid to become speaker in January and is now openly threatening a bid to remove him from the office.
FILE – From left, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., propose amendments to the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Bill before the House Rules Committee, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
At a closed-door GOP meeting on Thursday, Gaetz confronted McCarthy and asked whether he was involved in a campaign of conservative internet influencers posting negative things about him. The speaker retorted that he would not waste time on something like that, according to Gaetz.
Gaetz’s tactics prompted profanity-laced derision from Rep. French Hill, a close McCarthy ally.
McCarthy has tried to call Gaetz’s bluff and dared him to move on his threats. But for now, Gaetz is mostly focused on rallying Republicans, such as Reps. Andy Ogles of Tennessee, Anna Paulina Luna of Florida and Eli Crane of Arizona, to stand firm in opposing any temporary funding bill.
As House Republicans scrambled to find a path forward this week, Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Republican fiscal hard-liner, blasted GOP leadership for failing to bring up spending bills for House votes long before the end of the fiscal year.
“This is an incredible failure on the part of leadership by not starting this process back in June, July, when we would have had ample time to get through it all,” he said.
McCarthy has pointed the finger back at Gaetz and the conservatives, saying work on the appropriations bills was delayed all summer and into the fall due to their demands.
“When they stop the bills from coming up, and if he votes against a continuing resolution, it’s my fault? That’s interesting,” McCarthy said.
In the background, Trump has also urged the hard-line conservatives to hold out for sweeping concessions even if a shutdown is needed.
Biden, meanwhile, has avoided the fight in Congress besides repeatedly blaming House Republicans for the dysfunction. He has called on McCarthy to enforce the spending levels agreed to in the debt limit deal.
McCarthy has tried to drag Biden into the debate, calling on him to meet with Republicans to discuss the border security proposals that the speaker wants to attach to the temporary funding legislation.
HOW WILL THE STANDOFF END?
A government shutdown is almost inevitable at this point. But the duration of the shutdown, as well as the future of McCarthy’s speakership, is impossible to predict.
For now, McCarthy is still searching for support from his own party, hoping he can leverage his thin majority to force negotiations with Democrats. But the Senate is working on a temporary, bipartisan funding plan that is likely to pass in the coming days, adding more pressure on McCarthy to work with Democrats to avert a shutdown.
If McCarthy works with Democrats, Gaetz has promised he’ll try to oust McCarthy by filing a so-called “ motion to vacate the chair.” Procedural votes could be offered to halt the motion, or it could trigger a House floor vote on whether McCarthy should remain speaker.
Some House Democrats have signaled a willingness to help McCarthy remain speaker if conservatives try to oust him, though they’ll likely want something in return.
If McCarthy refuses to support a bipartisan plan, some moderate House Republicans are considering joining with Democrats to force a vote on such a bill.
Either development would be extraordinary in modern politics and could send the House into even more turmoil.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Lisa Mascaro contributed reporting.