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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kevin McCarthy faces a possible government shutdown. It could cost him his role as speaker

U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-California) addresses reporters after a House Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, in Washington, D.C.    (Drew Angerer/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Gillian Brassil McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — A looming government shutdown puts House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s gavel in danger, now and in 2025.

McCarthy postponed a key vote for avoiding a shutdown on Tuesday after leadership failed to convince enough Republicans to accept a short-term spending plan. Later, far-right Republicans tanked a vote to consider defense spending, another hit to McCarthy as he’s struggled to unify members from a highly-conservative bloc with the rest of his party.

Some far-right members have accepted a shutdown and also threatened to boot McCarthy from leadership.

The conservative flank isn’t budging on deep budget cuts or policy priorities, which, even if approved by the GOP-led House of Representatives, would likely be dead-on-arrival in the Democrat-held Senate. Both the House and Senate must pass identical measures before Sept. 30 when the government is slated to run out of money.

That puts McCarthy in a “tough spot,” said Christian Grose, academic director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy.

Blame for a shutdown would likely fall on the House of Representatives, Grose said, where Republicans have a slim majority.

If voters are dissatisfied with the GOP in a shutdown, Republicans in close 2024 elections could lose their seats. That could give Democrats the majority, and the speaker’s gavel.

Even if Republicans hold the House in 2025, McCarthy’s troubles with the far-right House Freedom Caucus could haunt him.

“McCarthy’s in a real problem electorally,” Grose said. “You could see a Republican this Congress or certainly next Congress, if they maintain the majority, challenging him.”

Shutdown messaging

To fund government agencies for another year, Congress must enact, and the president must sign, 12 spending bills or a combined version. Odds that the House and Senate concur on that in less than two weeks are low, so Congress needs to agree on a short-term resolution to keep the lights on. Otherwise, there’s a shutdown.

Whichever party has a stronger blame game in a shutdown fares better, said Grose and Thomas Holyoke, a professor of political science at California State University, Fresno.

Now a shutdown “shows that McCarthy and House Republicans have no ability at governance,” Holyoke said. “And presumably, the president and Democrats will draw a lot of national attention to this: McCarthy and his conference are being held hostage by a fringe, radical right movement.”

If the GOP in swing districts, such as the one’s represented by California Reps. David Valadao and John Duarte, convince constituents that the shutdown is Democrats’ fault, then it might work out for them. Valadao, R-Hanford, and Duarte, R-Modesto, both represent Democratic-leaning districts and have highly competitive races in 2024. McCarthy, on the other hand, has a deep-red district.

However for such messaging to work, voters have to be paying attention.

“Based on history, most people who aren’t paying attention do tend to put the blame on House leadership, because it’s usually the House that is blocking the continuing resolution,” Grose said. “And that’s what’s happening here.”

What happens in a government shutdown?

During a shutdown, agencies are only staffed by “essential” employees who work without being paid. Other workers are furloughed. Federal workers receive back pay once the shutdown ends.

At first, life seems to operate the same for most other people as Social Security and Medicare benefits continue.

“The pain,” Holyoke said, “starts to emerge slowly.”

The longer the shutdown, the more operations slow.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Interior Department, which are important to many in the Central Valley, shutter certain programs and operations. Passport applications, small business loans and other government benefits can be delayed. National Parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon can eventually turn away visitors, harming tourism cash flow.

McCarthy told reporters last week that “nobody wins in a government shutdown.” A spokeswoman for McCarthy referred The Bee to McCarthy’s prior comments for this story.

McCarthy’s bid to far-right Republicans

The far-right flank has pained McCarthy since he made a string of concessions and suffered 15 votes to earn the speakership in January. This led Washington D.C. insiders to believe McCarthy would be beholden to MAGA conservatives throughout his leadership.

In an apparent appeasement to the far-right last week, McCarthy launched an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.

Yet Congress avoided default this spring thanks to McCarthy meeting in the middle. McCarthy might need Democrats’ help now to avoid a government shutdown, and to preserve his leadership role.

“I don’t know how the Democrats would play this,” said Grose. “It seems like now they’re leaving it for McCarthy.”

Requiring Democratic support to avert a shutdown in 2015 cost former Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, his job. Boehner announced he would step down a week before the House passed a short-term measure to fund the government. Then, as now, the president was a Democrat, but Republicans had the Senate.

McCarthy can only lose a handful of GOP votes if all House Democrats oppose a measure in the 221-212 Republican majority.

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a member of the Freedom Caucus, threatened a vote to oust McCarthy if stopgap spending measures don’t meet their needs, and others have agreed. A document that appeared to be a typed motion dated Sept. 15 from Gaetz to do so was found by a reporter in a congressional restroom.

One of the concessions McCarthy made to gain the gavel was allowing any member to call for a vote on whether he could continue to serve.

Frustrated, McCarthy reportedly dared far-right detractors to try ousting him in a closed-door meeting last week.

Speakership on the line or not, Holyoke said, funding the government is one of Congress’ most basic priorities.

“And if McCarthy can’t pull that off,” he said, “then he’s basically shown that the House is utterly dysfunctional.”