Government shutdown risk spikes as House Republicans leave town in disarray amid hard-right revolt

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., walks from the chamber to his office just after House Republicans failed to advance their own defense bill for second time in a week at the Capitol in Washington on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. (AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — With House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s latest funding plan in ruins and lawmakers leaving town for the weekend, there’s no endgame in sight as hard-right Republicans push dangerously closer to a disruptive federal shutdown.

The White House will tell federal agencies on Friday to prepare for a shutdown, according to an official with the Office of Management and Budget who insisted on anonymity to discuss the upcoming instructions. That’s standard seven days out from a federal disruption.

The Republican McCarthy has repeatedly tried to appease his hard-right flank by agreeing to the steep spending cuts they are demanding to keep government open. But cheered on by Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner for president in 2024, the conservatives have all but seized control in dramatic fashion.

In a crushing defeat Thursday, a handful of Republican hardliners blocked a typically popular defense bill from advancing — the second time this week it was set back, an unheard-of loss for a House speaker.

Even a stopgap bill to keep government funding past the Sept. 30 deadline, called a continuing resolution or CR, is a non-starter for some on the right flank who have essentially seized control of the House.

“This is a whole new concept of individuals who just want to burn the whole place down,” McCarthy said after Thursday’s vote, acknowledging he was frustrated. “It doesn’t work.”

The open revolt was further evidence that McCarthy’s strategy of repeatedly giving in to the conservatives is seemingly only emboldening them, allowing them to run roughshod over their own House majority. Their conservative bills have almost no chances in the Senate.

Trump urged the conservatives to hold the line against the higher funding levels McCarthy had agreed to with President Joe Biden earlier this year and to end the federal criminal indictments against him.

“This is also the last chance to defund these political prosecutions against me and other Patriots,” Trump wrote on social media.

“They failed on the debt limit, but they must not fail now. Use the power of the purse and defend the Country!” the former president wrote.

The White House and Democrats, along with some Republicans, warn that a shutdown would be devastating for people who rely on their government for everyday services and would undermine America’s standing in the world.

“We need the extreme MAGA Republicans to get their act together,” said House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

“End the civil war,” Jeffries urged the Republicans. “Get your act together.”

But one of Trump’s top allies, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who is leading the hard-right flank, said the House Republicans now have almost no choices left but to spend the time it takes to pass each of the 12 spending bills needed to fund the government —- typically a laborious process — even if it means going into a shutdown.

Or they can join with Democrats to pass a CR, which is sure to put McCarthy’s job at risk.

What Gaetz said he, and several others, would not do is vote for a continuing resolution that fails to slash spending.

“I’m giving a eulogy for the CR right now,” Gaetz told reporters after a late afternoon meeting at the Capitol.

“I represent Florida’s first congressional district, where during the shutdown tens of thousands of people will go without a paycheck, and so I know the impact of a shutdown,” Gaetz said. “So it may get worse before it gets better, and I have little to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears, but that may be what it takes.”

A government closure is increasingly likely as time runs out for Congress to act.

McCarthy’s bid to move ahead with a traditionally popular defense funding bill as a first step toward keeping the government running was shattered, on a vote of 212-216. Five Republicans refused to vote with the increasingly endangered speaker. A sixth Republican voted no on procedural grounds so the bill could be reconsidered.

Moving forward with the defense bill was supposed to be a way for McCarthy to build goodwill among the GOP House majority as he tries to pass a temporary measure just to keep government running for another month. It, too, had catered to other hard-right priorities, such as slashing spending by 8% from many services and bolstering security at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Many on the right flank opposed the deal McCarthy struck with Biden this year over the spending levels and are trying to dismantle it now. They want to see progress on the individual appropriations bills that would fund the various federal departments at the lower levels these lawmakers are demanding.

The morning test vote shattered a McCarthy strategy that had emerged just the night before. Republicans had appeared on track, in a tight roll call, to advancing the measure Thursday. Then the Democrats who had not yet voted began rushing into the chamber.

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and fellow Democrats yelled out to hold open the vote. She was a “no.” A few others came in behind her and tipped the tally toward defeat.

The Democrats oppose the military bill on many fronts, including Republican provisions that would gut diversity programs at the Pentagon.

As passage appeared doomed, attention turned to the five Republican holdouts to switch their votes.

GOP leaders spent more than an hour on the floor trying to recruit one of them, Rep. Dan Bishop. R-N.C., to vote “yes.”

“Every time there’s the slightest relief of the pressure, the movement goes away from completing the work,” Bishop said.

When asked what it would take to gain his vote, Bishop said, “I think a schedule of appropriations bills over Kevin McCarthy signature would be meaningful to you to me.”

Others were dug in, including some who had supported advancing the defense bill just two days ago when it first failed.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a chief opponent of more aid for Ukraine in the war against Russia, said she voted against the defense bill this time because her party’s leadership refused to separate out the war money. Her stand came as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was at the Capitol during a high-profile visit to Washington.

McCarthy had pledged to keep lawmakers in session this weekend for as long as it took to finish their work. But they were sent home, told they could be called back on ample notice.

Many Republicans were starting to speak up more forcefully against their hard-right colleagues.

New York Rep. Mike Lawler, who represents a swing district, said he would not “be party to a shutdown.”

“There needs to be a realization that you’re not going to get everything you want,” he said. “Just throwing a temper tantrum and stomping your feet — frankly, not only is it wrong — it’s just pathetic.”