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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

With House in chaos, Republicans face tough choices and ticking clock to fund government

U.S. Republican Representative from California Kevin McCarthy walks from the House Chamber after he was ousted as Speaker at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.  (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON – After hardline Republicans ousted the House speaker Tuesday for working with Democrats to avert a government shutdown, GOP lawmakers face tough choices with just six weeks before federal funding runs out again.

Angered by Kevin McCarthy’s decision to allow a vote Saturday to fund the government until mid-November – rather than force a shutdown until their demands for spending cuts and right-wing policies were met – eight GOP hardliners voted to remove the California Republican as speaker.

Despite nearly all Democrats voting for the funding bill over the weekend, none of them came to the speaker’s aid on Tuesday. McCarthy had squandered any bipartisan good will, Democrats said, when he launched an impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden and reneged on a spending deal he struck with Biden in May, seemingly to appease the far-right lawmakers who ultimately deposed him anyway.

“I think this is horrifically bad for Republicans,” Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents North Idaho, said of his party before he voted to keep McCarthy as speaker. “We’re entrusted with a slim majority and then we basically communicate to the American people that we can’t lead.”

With a majority of 221 to 212, it only took five disgruntled Republicans to unseat the speaker, a move that became possible because of a rule McCarthy agreed to change to win over GOP hardliners during his marathon effort to be elected as speaker in January. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., filed a motion to oust McCarthy on Monday, after the then-speaker brought a short-term spending bill to the House floor.

That averted a shutdown that would have begun Sunday, forcing federal employees to work without pay and leaving the government only partly functional. But it incensed Gaetz and other Republicans who have insisted Congress shouldn’t fund the government without enacting right-wing policies and deep spending cuts, even though Democrats control the Senate and White House.

By passing the short-term spending bill, Congress funded the government at current levels until Nov. 17. That gives House and Senate lawmakers six weeks to reconcile different versions of a dozen appropriations bills to fund the government for a full year.

As Fulcher pointed out, removing the House speaker makes that far harder – House members were told Tuesday evening not to expect any other votes until next week – but the prospects for funding the government are worsened by the bills Republicans have passed.

In May, McCarthy struck a deal with Biden to limit federal spending in exchange for raising the nation’s debt limit, which averted economic disaster by letting the government pay bills it had already accrued. After Congress passed that legislation, Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, worked with her Republican counterpart to pass spending bills that stuck to the limits imposed by the McCarthy-Biden deal.

But in the House, McCarthy let Republicans craft bills that would cut spending far lower than the Senate bills, undoing much of the Biden administration’s legislative accomplishments. Senate Democrats and the president have said they already negotiated a deal with Republicans in May and won’t make further concessions.

“There was no reason for it to come this close,” Murray said on the Senate floor Saturday after voting for the short-term spending bill. “House Republicans should have worked with us from the very start. Instead, they spent weeks entertaining the most extreme ideas from their far right, spending the last week voting on really extreme appropriations bills that would not even actually have averted a shutdown.”

In the last week, House Republicans passed appropriations packages with amendments Democrats and even some Republicans have called extreme, including to cut the salaries of the secretary of defense and other top officials to $1 while funding the agencies they lead.

Asked about those provisions in an interview Friday, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, said they are meant to send a message to the Biden administration “that they need to be responsive when we are asking them questions,” such as about how money is being spent in Ukraine.

“There’s a lot of give and take as we work to move something forward,” she said. “The Republicans want the administration to be move responsive to us, and some of these votes are sending a clear message to the administration and to leaders of agencies.”

The amendment to slash the defense secretary’s pay was passed by a voice vote, for which McMorris Rodgers said she wasn’t on the House floor – although she voted to do the same to the pay of other officials, including the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence chief. Fulcher also voted for that amendment, while fellow GOP Reps. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside and Mike Simpson of Idaho Falls opposed it.

Asked about her stance on defunding the Pentagon chief’s salary, McMorris Rodgers first said she was unaware that amendment had been included in the defense appropriations bill and was “not sure what the reason was,” before saying she supported the provision.

On Tuesday, Fulcher agreed that the amendments to slash officials’ pay are intended to send a message and conceded that such provisions are unlikely to be included in bipartisan spending bills that could actually pass the Senate. He also said he didn’t think those amendments passed the House, although several of them did.

Fulcher said the plan is for the House GOP bills to go to a conference committee where they will be reconciled with the bipartisan Senate bills. But in her remarks Saturday, Murray said the House bills aren’t a serious starting point for negotiation.

“The only way to get things done, especially in a divided Congress, is to sit down with the other side and do the hard work of negotiating, talking to one another, not to cave to the most extreme members of your caucus or go back on your word,” Murray said. “I think most of us have known that from the start. Apparently Speaker McCarthy needed to learn that lesson the hard way.”

Without a speaker of the House, Congress will have even less time to negotiate spending bills that can pass both chambers and be signed by Biden.

Another government shutdown looms after Nov. 17.