The speaker must face down hardliners in his own caucus and a united Senate to create a conservative appropriations win and avoid a government shutdown.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) took a calculated risk by opening an impeachment investigation on President Joe Biden in the midst of a contentious battle over appropriations.
The Sept. 12 announcement drew harsh condemnation from Democrats. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who called it “politics on steroids.” White House spokesperson Ian Sams said the inquiry represented “extreme politics at its worst.”
All that was to be expected.
Mr. McCarthy may not have counted on the continued, even deepened, division within his own party over spending levels for the upcoming fiscal year after offering a concession to the most conservative members of his caucus, who have long agitated for an effort to impeach the president.
Now he finds himself in a three-way standoff between a united Senate, a resolute president, and obstructionist members of his own party over 2024 spending levels as the House rushes to pass 12 appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, which would trigger a government shutdown.
Adding to the tension, any member of the House may call for a vote to vacate the chair, which could strip Mr. McCarthy of his leadership role. And one member of his own party has threatened to do so if the speaker does not acquiesce to demands for additional spending cuts.
Whether Mr. McCarthy survives this leadership challenge will depend on his ability to outmaneuver both hardline Republicans in the House and a strong bipartisan syndicate in the Senate. To do so, the man from Bakersfield will likely resort to the combination of tactics that have become his stock-in-trade over the eight tumultuous months as speaker: heavy doses of strategy, consensus building, and patience, with a teeny bit of hardball politics.
An element within the Republican party has clamored to impeach President Biden since before his election. “I think this door of impeachable whatever has been opened,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said on Feb. 2, 2020, referencing the same events involving the president’s son that are at the center of the current investigation.
In January 2021, two weeks before President Biden’s inauguration, articles of impeachment were introduced against him in the House. Though that effort gained no momentum, House Republicans launched inquiries into the activities of the president’s son, Hunter Biden, in January 2023. In May, new articles of impeachment were filed.
Mr. McCarthy appeared to slow-walk the effort, saying any formal investigation would require a vote by the entire House. “To open an impeachment inquiry is a serious matter, and House Republicans would not take it lightly or use it for political purposes,” Mr. McCarthy told Breitbart News on Sept. 1.
“The American people deserve to be heard on this matter through their elected representatives,” he said. “That’s why, if we move forward with an impeachment inquiry, it would occur through a vote on the floor of the People’s House and not through a declaration by one person.”
Observers say the rapid change of heart was prompted by pressure from hardline Republicans, whom Mr. McCarthy would need to keep onboard as the end of the fiscal year approached without a single appropriations bill having passed the House.
“Given at the far right doesn’t trust [Mr. McCarthy] all that much . . . I think he needed to make some concessions to them in order to either get a bill through or hold the caucus together,” David A. Bateman, a professor of political science at Cornell University, told The Epoch Times. “I think this is a concession that is primarily aimed at the upcoming fights over appropriations.”
If that was Mr. McCarthy’s aim, it didn’t work.
The next day, members of the House Freedom Caucus forcefully called upon the speaker and fellow GOP members to push for deep cuts in spending regardless of the possible consequences.
“We’re here to put our foot down and say to this place, right here, it stops now,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), chair of the House Freedom Caucus, said at a press conference on Sept. 13. “The power of the purse is in the legislature, and the way you stop all this craziness of the Biden administration—the tyranny of the Biden administration—is to stop giving them money.”
“Right now, we’re here presenting what we believe is the right path forward to make sure this country is actually saved from deficits, from wide open borders, from a woke military, and a [Department of Justice] that’s weaponized against the American people,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said. “And if Democrats don’t want to work with us on that, if some of our Republican colleagues don’t want to work with us on that, that’s on them to figure out what’s going to happen on Oct. 1.”
House Republicans passed the Limit, Save, Grow Act in April, which cut federal spending to the 2022 level. In May, Mr. McCarthy negotiated with President Joe Biden to raise the nation’s $31.4 trillion debt ceiling in exchange for certain cuts to non-defense discretionary spending.
That agreement resulted in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, passed in June, which included smaller cuts in spending.
Now, with time running out before the end of the fiscal year, Republican hardliners are angered both by what they see as Mr. McCarthy’s reneging on their deal.
Other Republicans threatened to file a motion to vacate the chair if Mr. McCarthy did not comply with their aims, which would trigger a vote to remove Mr. McCarthy from the speakership.
“Green lighting a so-called clean or unqualified or blind [continuing resolution] is completely out of the question,” Rep. Andy Clyde (R-Ga.) said that passing a continuing resolution to fund the government at current levels while negotiations continued would “endanger Speaker McCarthy’s leadership.”
Earlier in the day, with help from Democrats. “If a majority of Republicans are against a piece of legislation and you use Democrats to pass it, that would immediately be a black-letter violation of the deal we had with McCarthy to allow his ascent to the speakership, and it would likely trigger an immediate motion to vacate,” Mr. Gaetz told Newsmax on Sept. 13.
Mr. Gaetz was referring to concessions wrangled from Mr. McCarthy by Republican hardliners in exchange for supporting his bid for the speakership.
Republicans hold just 222 seats in the House of Representatives, with 218 votes required for the passage of legislation. That means any four Republicans can block passage of a bill. In this situation, Mr. McCarthy needed near-complete unity within his caucus to pass appropriations bills and avoid a government shutdown.
If McCarthy makes no deal with hardliners, they can effectively shut down the government. If he concedes too much to the ultra-conservative faction, moderates could rebel.
Meanwhile, the Senate has moved all 12 appropriations bills through committee at higher spending levels than those contemplated in the House, and with bipartisan support.
So even if Mr. McCarthy is able to guide his Republican spending plan through the raucous House of Representatives, a compromise would still have to be negotiated with the Senate through the conference process.
With just 15 calendar days and eight legislative days remaining in the fiscal year, the situation appears desperate.
Yet Mr. McCarthy has already dodged a number of political bullets during his brief speakership.
That began with his election in January, which required a nearly unprecedented 15 ballots. He also negotiated a debt ceiling deal with President Joe Biden despite holding a seemingly weak position in the House. He guided the passage of the Limit, Save, Grow and Fiscal Responsibility Acts through the same House that now threatens to block his appropriations initiatives. And he fended off a revolt this summer by hardliners who, angered by his handling of debt ceiling negotiations with President Biden, effectively shut down all votes in the House for several days.
The McCarthy Method
Kevin McCarthy is a throwback politician, more dealmaker than boss, a strategist, relationship builder, pulse-taker, and compromise maker. He smiles a lot. He speaks patiently to reporters, explaining his position as a father might when telling a child he can’t have ice cream for supper.
At the close of talks with President Biden over raising the debt ceiling, GOP negotiators praised McCarthy’s skill as a political strategist.
“Without his focus and effort, without building consensus among House Republicans and being able to deliver on a bill that raised the debt ceiling, we would have been at the negotiating table,” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) told reporters on May 31.
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), McCarthy’s other lead negotiator, called Mr. McCarthy “one of the best strategists I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Others praise McCarthy’s ability to find agreement by connecting with rank-and-file members of the
“I think there are two things that make Kevin McCarthy the right leader for this time,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) told The Epoch Times. The first is that he really understands his members individually. He knows what they care about. He knows what their priorities are, and he knows how best to interact with them.”
“The second is that he’s done a very good job of talking on a regular basis and almost daily basis to the heads of what is sometimes called the Five Families, or the five ideological caucuses of the House,” Mr. Johnson added.
A Capitol Hill staffer told The Epoch Times, “I’ve worked in Congress a long time, and I have never seen a more collaborative Speaker’s office and, frankly, a collaborative House.”
That soft approach occasionally leads observers to underestimate Mr. McCarthy’s leadership, or perhaps overestimate the strength of his political foes. And McCarthy is keenly aware of this.
“Every question you continue to raise,” he told reporters in April, “you guys have been wrong. You’ve underestimated us.”
Asked in May whether he could gain passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, Mr. McCarthy pointed to a previous instance of pulling a legislative rabbit from the hat: “You underestimated me the whole time. . . Can we get to yes? Yes. We passed the [Limit, Save, Grow Act].”
The speaker also appears to make use of less subtle political tools when needed.
Mr. McCarthy dared Republican colleagues to make good on their threat to oust him from his leadership position during a closed-door meeting on Sept. 14. Mr. McCarthy reportedly dared opponents to put forth “the [expletive] motion” to vacate the chair.
Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) confirmed to The Epoch Times that Mr. McCarthy directly confronted the threat, saying that “Kevin doesn’t live in fear.”
After conservative members blocked a move to bring military spending bills worth $826 billion to the House floor on Sept. 14, demanding further concessions, the speaker seems to have quietly moved to position them as unsupportive of U.S. troops.
In a press conference on military spending on Sept. 15, Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) outlined key provisions of the bill, including a pay raise for junior enlisted personnel, some of whom rely on public assistance due to low pay.
“The focus right now is helping the Freedom Caucus understand the imperative of passing this,” Mr. Garcia said. “Any compromises or negotiations on the heels of passage on this should be addressed in the future,” he added, urging swift passage of the bill to prevent any disruption in military readiness.
Regarding the threat to oust the speaker, Mr. Garcia said, “Stop the chatter, stop the rhetoric, stop the threats. If you’re going to put a motion to vacate, do it.”
Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.) said that if the bills do not pass, individual members should be held accountable. “This will not be the Republican Party of the House of Representatives or the Democratic Party of the House of Representatives that holds us up. There will be some individuals from those parties to do so.”
Though a small number of representatives can block nearly any action in the House, Mr. McCarthy appears to have the support of most House Republicans on 2024 funding levels.
“When we shut down the government, Republicans lose because it becomes our fault,” a congressional aide told The Epoch Times. “So when our service members don’t get paid, there will be one group to look to. And that’s why the vast majority of House Republicans don’t want the government shutdown.”
Continuing Resolution Option
Republicans are wary of passing a continuing resolution rather than doing appropriations through regular order, especially after the $1.7 trillion omnibus appropriations bill that was forced through the House last December.
Yet Mr. McCarthy has indicated he will likely resort to a short-term continuing resolution to buy a bit more time to get the appropriations process completed, including resolving the significant differences between House and Senate versions of the bills.
“I don’t like continuing resolutions to go to Christmas time,” Mr. McCarthy told reporters on Sept. 14, saying that puts pressure on members to vote too quickly. “What I like personally is to go 30 or 60 days.”
Asked if he had a specific plan in mind, the speaker said lightheartedly, “I always have a plan. That doesn’t mean it happens. I had a plan for this week, and it didn’t turn out exactly as I planned.”
The House and Senate resume session on Sept. 18. The fiscal year ends 12 days later.
Jackson Richman and Joseph Lord contributed to this report.