WASHINGTON – Facing fresh challenges to his leadership, Speaker Kevin McCarthy is trying to accomplish what at times seems impossible — working furiously to convince House Republicans to come together and pass a conservative bill to keep the federal government open.
It’s a nearly futile exercise that could help McCarthy keep his job, but has little chance of actually preventing a federal shutdown. Whatever House Republicans come up with is nearly certain to be rejected by the Senate, where Democrats and most Republicans want to fund the government.
In one dramatic sign of defeat Tuesday, House Republicans were even voting against their own defense bill. During a rowdy afternoon vote, the usually popular bill was turned back from consideration, 212-214, after five hard-right conservatives helped sink it. They want to see an overall plan from McCarthy.
McCarthy simply walked off the House floor. “Look, the one thing you’re going to learn about me: I like a challenge — I don’t like this big a challenge — but we’re just gonna keep doing it until we can make it,” McCarthy told reporters.
With time dwindling, Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to pass the broader government funding legislation and get a bill to President Joe Biden's desk to become law. Otherwise, the U.S. faces massive federal government closures and disruptions. Plans for another vote Tuesday to advance the overall spending bill were shelved.
“The ball’s in Kevin’s court,” said Republican Rep. Ralph Norman of the Freedom Caucus.
The latest House government funding proposal, a compromise between members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus and the more pragmatic Main Street conservatives, was almost dead on arrival, left sputtering even after McCarthy loaded it up with spending cuts and Republican priorities in a border security package.
Behind closed doors Tuesday, the speaker was trying to stress the political repercussions of a government shutdown to Republicans, warning them that no party wins with a closure.
Unlike last week when an angry and frustrated McCarthy unleashed foul language on his colleagues, he tried a different tack when addressing his members privately in the Capitol basement.
Appearing cool, calm and collected, McCarthy cast the funding plan as just a proposal and left time for rank-and-file members to debate, according to Republicans familiar with the meeting.
Still, one Republican after another rose to tell McCarthy that the current plan would not have their votes. With a slim majority, he needs almost every Republican on board.
Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., one of the negotiators for the Main Street group, urged her colleagues later to not let the “perfect be the enemy of the good.”
The showdown over the usually popular defense bill shows the difficulty ahead — it was the second time McCarthy had tried to advance the measure after he abruptly withdrew it from consideration last week.
The attempt to soothe tensions among Republicans comes as tempers are flaring and as big personalities try to seize the upper hand — some trying to lead and others hoping to disrupt any plans for compromise.
Florida’s two leading conservatives, Matt Gaetz and newcomer Byron Donalds, are sniping in the halls and across social media, as Gaetz criticizes the deal Donalds and others struck as insufficiently conservative.
And freshmen Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., pointedly attacked McCarthy as a “weak speaker.”
One seasoned lawmaker Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., warned the infighting could derail the House GOP, much the way it did for past speakers like John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Both retired earlier than expected amid constant threats of ousters.
Womack said he fears there is a “larger fight” brewing “that is more of a personality nature because of the conflict between certain members and the speaker.”
The monthlong funding package that McCarthy is pushing would impose steep spending cuts of more than 8% on many government services, while sparing defense and veterans accounts. It would last for 31 days in hopes of giving House Republicans time to approve the more traditional government funding bills.
The White House issued a memo detailing cuts from the Republican plan, saying it would mean fewer border patrol agents, school teachers and aides, Meals on Wheels for seniors and Head Start slots for children, among other cutbacks.
“Extreme House Republicans are playing partisan games with peoples’ lives and marching our country toward a government shutdown,” the White House said.
Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned of the steep cuts Republicans are planning with their “cruel” and “reckless” spending plan.
At its core, House Republicans are trying to undo the deal McCarthy reached with Biden earlier this year to set federal funding levels as part of the debt ceiling fight. Conservatives rejected that measure then, even though it was approved and signed into law, and they are trying to dismantle it now.
But House Republicans are late to the effort, with time running short to act. Whatever bills they pass are certain to run aground in the Senate, where bipartisan groups of senators have already started approving their own funding bills, some at levels higher than the Biden-McCarthy agreement.
The roughly dozen Republicans who have voiced displeasure at McCarthy's proposal see the current impasse as a make-or-break moment to hold the speaker to commitments to drastically cut topline government spending.
“If my party is not going to stand up, what is the right thing to do?" said Spartz. "No matter how hard, I don’t think anyone else will.”
When Spartz was asked whether she would support an effort to oust McCarthy, she said she was “open to everything.”
But Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who helped draft the proposal, all but dared his fellow Freedom Caucus members and other “so-called conservative colleagues” to reject it — particularly its “dream bill” provisions for dealing with the U.S. border with Mexico.
“If my conservative colleagues want to vote against that, go explain that,” Roy said.
The holdouts want steeper cuts that would adhere to the $1.47 trillion for annual discretionary funding they had initially advanced earlier this year to raise the nation's debt limit.
Another seasoned lawmaker, Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, warned of pain ahead for Americans if the government shuts down.
"It would be disastrous,” he said. “I’ve never seen a time when a shutdown is good policy or good politics.”
Simpson suggested it was time for McCarthy to reach out to Democrats to strike a bipartisan deal.
But that would almost certainly lead McCarthy's right-flank to try to hold a vote to oust him from the speaker's job.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Josh Boak contributed to this report.