House Republicans plunged their way into previously unexplored depths of dysfunction on Thursday, after a group of hardliners sank Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s latest attempt to pass some sort of budget legislation before a government shutdown.
The fiasco began when a vote to begin debate on the party’s defense spending bill unexpectedly failed 214-216 for the second time in a week. Five Republicans voted against the measure, including McCarthy’s close ally, Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who sought to strip out a small amount of funding for Ukraine. Another, Rules Committee Chair Rep. Tom Cole, flipped to no as a procedural move that will allow him to revive the bill later.
Afterwards, GOP leaders called off votes for the rest of the week as they sought to regroup. (They may call back lawmakers this weekend). Republican members described the state of their party as “chaos” and “a total shitshow.” “We are very dysfunctional right now,” Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn. told NBC, adding that leadership “obviously can’t count” votes.
“At this moment, House Republicans can’t govern,” tweeted Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman, the semi-official chronicler of McCarthy’s speakership. “This isn’t just an opinion, at this point. It’s a fact that’s been borne out in the Capitol all week.”
McCarthy had expressed optimism that Republicans were finally rallying around a budget strategy following their conference-wide meeting Wednesday. (“We’ve got a plan to move forward,” he told reporters.) Leaders had outlined a stopgap funding bill to keep the government open that contained border security money and a commission to address long term federal spending, which appeared to be winning over some conservative holdouts, as well as a plan to begin passing full-year appropriations, starting with the defense bill.
Those aims all skidded off the rails Thursday. After the defense vote failed, the temporary spending bill was declared effectively dead as well.
There’s been rampant speculation about whether hardline Republicans will eventually try to oust McCarthy from his job, especially after Rep. Matt Gaetz, his most vocal antagonist, left a copy of a motion to vacate sitting in a bathroom this week. But even though he’s still holding the gavel for now, McCarthy already feels a bit like a speaker in name only.
For starters, he has forfeited control over the House floor. As many reporters noted today, past speakers have rarely lost votes on all-important procedural rules to tee-up bills (Nancy Pelosi never did once in her tenure). McCarthy has now lost rule votes twice this week, and three times since he took over in January. The norms that traditionally give speakers their power are collapsing beneath him.
McCarthy has acknowledged as much. “It’s frustrating in the sense that I don’t understand how anyone votes against bringing the idea up and having the debate,” he said Thursday. “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down. That doesn’t work.”
Worse yet, McCarthy is currently forced to reward the arsonists for their handywork. Republicans are currently considering removing the $300 million in Ukraine funding that was included in the defense bill to appease Greene. Meanwhile, party leaders are now adopting a plan from Gaetz to spend next week passing a series of individual budget bills that are destined to die in the Senate, doing nothing to prevent an end-of-the-month shutdown. For the time being, the pirates have taken over the ship. McCarthy had better look at Gaetz, because he’s the captain now.
Moderates, meanwhile, have begun threatening their own sort of rebellion. Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., has said that if the House does not pass a short-term spending bill to prevent a shutdown, he’ll join with Democrats and sign a discharge petition forcing one onto the floor. As D.C. lobbyist Liam Donovan noted Thursday, there already appears to be a legislative vehicle sitting available for such a move.
This is the sort of governing breakdown that many in Washington expected under McCarthy after his humiliating battle to become speaker. He appeared to prove the doubters wrong earlier this year by pushing through a compromise debt ceiling bill over the objections of his right wing members. But the reality of a 5-vote margin in a conference dominated by tactical extremists appears to be catching up with him.
Room for Disagreement
As McCarthy pointed out today, several Republican House members were absent, which gave the mutineers more leverage. When they return, the speaker may be able to exercise a bit more control again. Plus, even if we plunge into a shutdown, somebody will have to strike a deal with Democrats to reopen the government — which means McCarthy will have to push back against conservatives at some point. When that happens, we’ll find out if he’s capable of reasserting some control, or if a new speaker needs to step in to keep the government open.