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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

House fight to oust McCarthy threatens to shake balance of power

U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks with members of the media following passage in the House of a 45-day continuing resolution on Sept. 30, 2023, in Washington, D.C.    (Nathan Howard/Getty Images North America/TNS)
Billy House Bloomberg News

Republican party divisions are intensifying in the aftermath of a last-ditch deal to avert a U.S. government shutdown as a drive to overthrow House Speaker Kevin McCarthy threatens to shake the balance of power in the Capitol.

The alliances that emerge from this fight, which hardline Representative Matt Gaetz announced Sunday, will have far-reaching ramifications for the Republican-controlled House’s ideological fervor and hunger for brinkmanship.

The rare rebellion against a House speaker and unprecedented possibility members of the opposition party may rescue him unfolds as Washington is struggling to work out annual funding for the government. Aid to Ukraine hangs in the balance, along with contentious battles over immigration and asylum policy, abortion rights and support for the poor.

Despite temporary funding approved over the weekend, the U.S. faces another shutdown threat Nov. 17.

If Gaetz can persuade just four more GOP hardliners to join his mutiny, it would succeed combined with nearly unified Democratic opposition against McCarthy. However, Democrats could help McCarthy either by voting against the motion, or choosing not to vote at all.

A rescue by Democrats would push the speaker into what amounts to a coalition government in the House, a remarkable shift that would force a reappraisal of the House’s legislative agenda.

The threat from the ultra-right would be neutralized. But McCarthy would be on shaky ground, vulnerable to the next challenge, if he lost Democratic support.

Centrist Democrats have previously signaled they would consider rescuing McCarthy, who has been under threat of ouster since he won the speakership on the 15th round in January. But that was before the speaker launched a polarizing impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, a move that failed to quell his restive right flank.

McCarthy’s ouster would open a leadership vacuum in the House with no obvious successor to unify the fractious party, creating more political uncertainty. And there are still Democrats in Washington who see McCarthy — particularly a McCarthy willing to make deals with Democrats — as a better alternative than any potential successor.

The drama is playing out as Moody’s Investors Service, the only remaining major credit grader to give the U.S. a top rating, warned in late September its confidence in the U.S. is wavering because of concerns about “governance.”

House Democratic leaders haven’t tipped their hands on whether they would come to the aid of McCarthy.

Party Whip Katherine Clark informed House Democrats Sunday that if Gaetz follows through on his threat the party “will have a Caucus wide discussion on how to address the motion.”

Gaetz announced he would pursue an attempt to remove McCarthy this week, following the speaker’s decision Saturday to abandon hardliners’ demands for deep spending cuts and border policy changes to avert an Oct. 1 government shutdown with temporary funding.

The stopgap funding passed the House Saturday with the backing of 209 Democrats and 126 Republicans. Ninety Republicans opposed the measure.

McCarthy had spent months courting hardliners after they lashed out at an earlier deal he made Biden to raise the legal debt limit and prevent a U.S. debt default.

He decided to back the temporary funding well aware it would risk a move to oust him but determined now was the time to trigger that attempt, according to a person familiar with the matter.

McCarthy said Sunday he was ready for the fight.

“Bring it on, let’s get over with it and let’s start governing,” McCarthy said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “If he’s upset because he tried to push us into a shutdown and I made sure the government didn’t shut down, let’s have that fight.”