Image for McCarthy Turnaround Averts Shutdown
A sudden reversal by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Saturday allowed a stopgap spending measure to pass before a midnight deadline Saturday.

Speaker Risks His Job by Appealing to Democrats to Approve Stopgap Spending

To nearly everyone’s surprise and the consternation of the conservative wing of the House Republican caucus, Speaker Kevin McCarthy did a complete 180 by offering a continuing resolution (CR) that extended government funding at FY23 levels until mid-November.


The House passed the CR 335 to 91 with all but one Democrat and 126 Republicans voting ‘yes’. There were 91 Republican ‘no’ votes, including far-right conservatives led by Congressman Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, who were livid at McCarthy’s sudden change of course.

Congressional observers had made dire forecasts that a shutdown was inevitable. However, after House passage, the Senate quickly passed the bill with large bipartisan support and President Biden signed the bill with time to spare before the government shutdown deadline Saturday at midnight.

McCarthy acquiesced to nearly all Democrat demands to avoid a shutdown. The CR contained $16 billion in disaster relief (Biden’s full request amount), a three-month extension of the FAA authorization bill, extension of the National Flood Insurance Program and a host of other health care provisions. The CR didn’t approve more funding for Ukraine or the border wall.

“Today wasn’t the choice we wanted to have,” McCarthy told reporters after the vote. “House Republicans tried to pass a stopgap measure with conservative priorities, but the bill did not have enough Republican votes.”

Democrats were caught completely off-guard by McCarthy’s about-face and the speed at which he was moving. Members were given an hour to read the bill before voting, causing Democrats to deploy a series of delay tactics to ensure there weren’t any hidden poison pills in the CR.

Congressman Jamaal Brown, D-New York, went so far as to pull a fire alarm in the Cannon House Office Building. Republicans accused him of interfering with an official procedure, comparing what he did to the January 6 Capitol assault to delay certification of Biden’s electoral vote victory. Brown denied the allegation and said it was an accident. The Capitol Police are investigating.

Now attention turns to an attempt to dethrone McCarthy as Speaker. Gaetz made the circuit of Sunday TV shows declaring he would introduce a Motion to Vacate the Chair this week. If Gaetz can round up even a handful of Republicans and the entire Democratic caucus to support the motion, McCarthy could lose his job and plunge the House into chaos. There is no apparent heir to the speaker’s chair.

It’s not clear if Democrats will vote to save McCarthy. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, is expected to have a lot of influence over his caucus. That will likely depend on what concessions McCarthy is prepared to give Democrats that won’t erode his mainstream Republican support.

The next 45 days will see if both the House and House can muster the votes to pass 12 stalled appropriations bills or whether they will need another CR until the end of the year. Assuming he survives the speakership challenge, McCarthy must navigate House Republican pressure to make deeper spending cuts than called for in the debt ceiling deal he agreed to with Biden. Many House appropriations also include controversial culture war provisions that stand no chance of surviving in the Democratically controlled Senate.

Also at play are concerns for House Republicans and Democrats representing swing districts, including Democratic Congresswoman Marie Gluesenkamp-Perez in Washington’s Third District and Republican Congresswoman Lori Chavez-DeRemer in Oregon’s Fifth District. It’s unusual for members of an opposition party to vote for a Speaker in a majority party, but not unprecedented.

If McCarthy is removed, all business in the House immediately stops until a new Speaker is elected. In January, it took McCarthy 15 rounds of voting to succeed, sending C-SPAN’s viewership through the roof (well, for C-SPAN). We’ll see if playoff baseball can compete with C-SPAN if there is another protracted speakership battle.

Saturday’s turnabout shows what a difference a day makes. After a shocking turn of events that tested the conventional wisdom of DC insiders, it’s fair to recall the famous quote by Hans Morgenthau that “politics is an art and not a science”. The rest of the quote is useful as well, “What is required for its mastery is not the rationality of the engineer but the wisdom and moral strength of the statesman”.

Politics is an art, not a science.

McCarthy’s Predicament
McCarthy became speaker after making significant concessions to far-right conservatives in his caucus, including a provision that allows a single member to file a motion to remove the speaker. Complicating his situation, McCarthy only has a slim 5-vote GOP majority, making him vulnerable to any kind of organized resistance to a bill or resolution.

Working out an arrangement with House Democrats is problematic because it would reverse the equation to pass bills, requiring five or more Republicans to join all Democrats. Getting all Democrats on the same page is its own challenge. Possible elements of a deal may be to move appropriations without deep spending cuts conservative Republicans demand. Democrats also could ask McCarthy to scrap the Biden impeachment inquiry.

DC insiders view a cross-party deal as highly unlikely. “It seems exceedingly unlikely – basically impossible – for McCarthy to create a durable bipartisan procedural coalition,” says Matt Glassman, an expert on the speakership at Georgetown University. Republican strategist Liam Donovan said significant concessions are so unlikely that seeking them would serve to build the rationale for Democrats to join Gaetz in ousting McCarthy.

It’s worth noting there are five Democrats representing GOP-leaning districts, including Gluesenkamp-Perez, who might be open to working with McCarthy. Gluesenkamp-Perez has cast several House votes in line with Republicans.

Ukraine Assistance
In addition to appropriations bills, additional aid to Ukraine is on the line in the next 45 days. Biden has requested an additional $24 billion in supplemental aid. Roughly three-quarters of the House and Senate favor more aid to Ukraine, but the procedural question is how to get a funding measure to the House floor for a vote.

Ukrainian officials shrugged off the absence of additional funding in the just-passed CR. They realized there wasn’t much upside to criticizing the omission.

Senator J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, raised a possible breakthrough late last week by suggesting tying further aid to Ukraine with increased funding for border security. Some Republicans interpreted that as resuming funding for the border wall, which Democrats would oppose as a victory for former President Trump. But there are other more immediate ways to address an increased influx of migrants that could be fodder for a compromise.

[This blog is based on a client report by CFM Federal Affairs Partner Joel Rubin.]