McCarthy’s House speakership hangs by a thread as US shutdown looms

<span>Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Kevin McCarthy ended the week in the same predicament that he started it with: teetering on the edge of a government shutdown as his House speakership hangs by a thread.

The House wrapped up its work on Thursday with no clear path forward on advancing a stopgap government spending bill – a grim sign with just nine days left to avert a federal shutdown. In an advisory to members, House Republican whip Tom Emmer said spending negotiations were “ongoing”, but he did not specify any plans for a vote on Friday.

Related: McCarthy says hard-right Republicans ‘want to burn whole place down’

The announcement came hours after a procedural motion to advance House Republicans’ defense spending bill was defeated by far-right members for the second time this week. McCarthy and his team spent the week trying to appease and cajole the handful of holdouts within their conference who blocked the bill and also oppose a stopgap measure, but those efforts failed to sway enough members to advance the defense bill.

The two failed votes on Tuesday and Thursday were particularly worrisome for McCarthy considering the defense spending bill is generally viewed as the least contentious of the funding bills that Congress must pass.

“I don’t understand why anybody votes against bringing the idea and having the debate,” McCarthy told reporters on Thursday. “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down. That doesn’t work.”

If the House and the Senate do not pass a spending bill before 1 October, the lapse in funding will likely force hundreds of thousands of federal workers to go without pay and bring a halt to crucial government services. Emphasizing the serious threat posed by a shutdown, the White House implored Republicans to “stop playing political games with people’s lives”.

“Extreme House Republicans showed yet again that their chaos is marching us toward a reckless and damaging government shutdown,” the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said Thursday. “Extreme House Republicans can’t even get an agreement among themselves to keep the government running or to fund the military.”

Kevin McCarthy arrives for the day at the Capitol in Washington on 20 September 2023.
‘This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down,’ McCarthy told reporters Thursday. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

With the odds of a shutdown rising, the White House again called on McCarthy to honor the funding deal outlined in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which passed the House and the Senate with bipartisan support earlier this year. That agreement, brokered between President Joe Biden and McCarthy, suspended the debt ceiling and outlined modest spending cuts for fiscal year 2024, but those cuts were deemed insufficient by members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.

Capitalizing on House Republicans’ narrow majority, those hard-right members are now demanding steeper cuts in exchange for their support of a stopgap spending bill. McCarthy’s previous concessions to the holdout members, including the launch of an impeachment inquiry against Biden last week, have so far failed to swing enough Republican votes to keep the government open.

It also remains unclear whether the Freedom Caucus’ proposed budget – which the White House has warned would include severe funding cuts for border security, education and food safety – can even pass muster with some of the more centrist members of the House Republican conference. Those suggested cuts will certainly fail to win widespread support in the Senate, which has taken a more bipartisan approach to the funding negotiations.

In short, House Republicans continue to squabble over a budget plan that has no chance of ever becoming law, and some of them appear willing to shut down the government over the issue.

Hanging over the spending fight is the very real question of whether McCarthy will be able to hold on to his speakership. Hard-right Republicans have made clear that, if McCarthy attempts to cut a deal with Democrats to fund the government, they will move to oust the speaker – a viable possibility when it only takes one member to call a vote to vacate the chair. But if hard-right Republicans do not drop their opposition to a stopgap bill, McCarthy may ultimately need Democrats’ support if he wants to avoid a shutdown.

Depending on whether McCarthy can strike a deal with his critics, the speaker may soon have to choose between keeping the government open and keeping his gavel.