WASHINGTON — As the Senate marches ahead with a bipartisan approach to prevent a government shutdown, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is back to square one — asking his hard-right Republicans to do what they have said they would never do: approve their own temporary House measure to keep the government open.
The Republican speaker laid out his strategy Wednesday behind closed doors, urging his unruly Republican majority to work together. He set up a test vote for Friday, one day before Saturday’s shutdown deadline, on a far-right bill. It would slash federal spending by 8% from many agencies and toughen border security but has been rejected by Democrats and his own right-flank Republicans.
“I want to solve the problem,” McCarthy told reporters afterward at the Capitol.
But pressed on how he would pass a partisan Republican spending plan that even his own right flank doesn’t want, McCarthy had few answers. He rejected outright the Senate’s bipartisan bill, which would fund the government to Nov. 17, adding $6 billion for Ukraine and $6 billion for U.S. disaster relief while talks continue. Instead, he insisted, as he often does, that he would never quit trying.
Congress is at a crossroads days before a disruptive federal shutdown that would halt paychecks for millions of federal workers, leave 2 million active duty military troops and reservists to work without pay, close down many federal offices, and leave Americans who rely on the government in ways large and small in the lurch.
President Joe Biden in California at a meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said Wednesday he didn’t think a federal shutdown was inevitable.
“I don’t think anything is inevitable when it comes to politics,” he said.
But later at a fundraiser in San Francisco, Biden said of McCarthy: “I think that the speaker is making a choice between his speakership and American interests.”
As the Senate pushes ahead in bipartisan fashion, McCarthy is demanding that Biden meet to discuss border security measures. But the speaker has little leverage left with the White House without the power of his House majority behind him. The White House has panned his overtures for talks after McCarthy walked away from the debt deal he and Biden reached earlier this year that is now law.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned of the right-wing extremes that “seem to exult in shutting down government.”
The Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was in rare agreement with the Democratic leader, urging his House colleagues to consider the Senate’s stopgap approach, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, and move off the shutdown strategy.
McConnell said that he, too, would like to do something about the “Democrats’ reckless spending” and boost border security. But he said, “these important discussions cannot progress” if the functions of government “end up being taken hostage.”
When McConnell mentioned a vote against the bill would mean voting against pay for border patrol agents and others, it sparked a response from Biden on social media.
“You know, I agree with Mitch here. Why the House Republicans would want to defund Border Patrol is beyond me,” Biden wrote.
With the Senate expected to spend the rest of this week working to pass its bill over the objections of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and others on the right flank. Like their House colleagues, the conservative senators want to halt aid to Ukraine and push for steeper spending cuts, all action in Congress is crushing toward a last minute deadline.
The federal government would begin to shut down if funding is not secured by Sunday, Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
A new economic assessment from Goldman Sachs estimated a federal shutdown would subtract 0.2 percent points from fourth-quarter GDP growth each week it continues, according to a report issued Wednesday.
Running out of options, McCarthy revived the border security package he first tried to attach to a temporary government funding bill earlier this month. But he still faces a handful of hard-right holdouts led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who say they won’t vote for any CR, denying a majority for passage.
It’s late in the process to be pushing the border security provisions now, as McCarthy tries to salvage the strategy. He is seeking to shift blame to Biden and Democrats for not engaging in an immigration debate about the record flow of migrants at the Southern border with Mexico.
Facing holdouts in his own ranks, McCarthy is trying to cajole his hard-right members who have refused to vote for any temporary spending bill — even with the border provisions. He told reporters, “I don’t understand where somebody would want to stand with President Biden on keeping an open border and not keep government open.”
The holdouts are determined to force the House to debate and pass all 12 individual funding bills for all the various government agencies. It’s a grinding weeks-long process with no guarantee the bills will even pass with days to go before a shutdown.
“If that means we close and we shut down, that’s what we’re going do,” said Rep. Andy Ogles, a Tennessee Republican who wants the House to vote on all 12 bills, as he exited the morning Republican meeting.
On Wednesday the House slogged through debate over four of those bills — to fund Defense, Homeland Security, Agriculture and State and Foreign Operations.
One amendment to gut $300 million for Ukraine was backed by 104 Republicans, more than ever as resistance to war funding grows, but it — and another like it — overwhelmingly failed. One from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to cut the Defense Secretary’s salary to $1 was approved without dissent.
But late at night, facing the prospect that the Defense bill would fail with any Ukraine aid intact, the Republicans held an emergency Rules meeting to strip the $300 million — a stunning maneuver that the committee’s top Democrat called “pathetic,” since the House had already decided the issue.
Republicans defended the action, saying the Ukraine money, which is routine and separate from Biden’s larger request for funds, now will be voted on separately — and will likely pass with overwhelming support.
Lawmakers are prepared to work into the weekend, but one leading Republican, Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, said he believed Congress was headed towards a government shutdown.
“Somebody is going to have to flinch or break, or there will have to be something negotiated,” he said.
But the hard-right is threatening to oust McCarthy if he joins with Democrats and Womack, who is not among the holdouts, explained such a move could be “problematic for the speaker.”
While the White House has said it’s up to McCarthy and the House Republicans to “fix” the problem they have created, Biden’s chief rival in the 2024 election, Donald Trump, is urging the right flank to fight for steep spending cuts. If Republicans don’t get what they want, Trump the former president says, they should “shut it down.”
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Lolita Baldor, Josh Boak and Colleen Long contributed to this report.
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