Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy’s Next Trick: Averting a Government Shutdown

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s latest pledge to cut spending is intended to soothe hard-right members of his party and has put Congress on a collision course with a potential government shutdown later in the year.

To become Speaker in January, the California Republican promised deep reductions in spending. He moved to the middle to reach a debt-ceiling deal with the White House, agreeing to smaller constraints than the conservatives wanted. Eleven of the GOP members revolted this month, withholding procedural votes and grinding the House to a screeching halt. 

The move prompted the Speaker to promise to take another crack at cuts, this time in the appropriations process that is now underway.

Democrats say McCarthy is reneging on bipartisan spending deal

The most recent pledge drew howls from Dems who said he was reneging on the bipartisan spending deal. This fall, the battle is expected to come to a head when the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-run Senate attempt to pass an annual spending package. 

What’s on the line is a possible lapse in government funding many legislators see as increasingly probable, along with McCarthy’s job if he is made to make concessions hard-liners don’t want. 

“It’s almost just the nature of survival as Republican speaker,” said Brendan Buck, a former senior aide to Republican speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner. “You almost are forced to make promises that are in conflict with each other in order to just live to fight another day.”

In recent decades, the government has endured a series of partial shutdowns, which typically close facilities and send workers home until the standoff is resolved. While the economic fallout is minuscule compared with the potential U.S. default averted in the debt-ceiling talks, any government closure could cause political pain for the party seen as causing it. 

Previous House GOP speakers have dealt with the tug of war from the right; however, none had to manage with such a small majority, currently at 222 to 212. Conservatives made clear that they won’t let up the pressure on party leaders, with GOP Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida referring to McCarthy’s relationship with him and other dissidents as a “power sharing” arrangement. 

“It’s really pretty simple. Congress has to get serious about spending reductions,” tweeted Republican Representative Ken Buck of Colorado on Friday. 

Other Republicans are becoming fed up with colleagues’ moves to block the House from continuing to function unless they get their way.

“A small group is, in essence, stopping the conservative agenda,” said GOP Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Behind the scenes, various lawmakers said McCarthy is trying to educate legislators about the spending process to help set expectations for the fall. At the recent GOP conference meeting moderates, he also refereed shouting matches between the far-right House Freedom Caucus. 

“I just wake up every day, pray for the patience of Job, and find a solution,” McCarthy told reporters. “We work forward.”

The Speaker’s challenge in his message to members is “a very straightforward thing: not everybody gets their way all the time. I don’t. You don’t. He doesn’t, even as the speaker,” said GOP Representative Mark Amodei of Nevada, member of the House Appropriations Committee. 

Along with backing cuts, Rep. McCarthy has promised to pass all 12 appropriations bills that comprise the annual budget and send them to the Senate. He has called on the Senate to do the same, then find an agreement on the legislation. While this is the process Congress is supposed to use, it hasn’t been done since the 1990s. However, lawmakers often combine the bills or negotiate them outside of a formal conference process. 

To avoid a shutdown in recent years, leaders have put out a last-minute spending deal that combines all 12 bills. Speaker McCarthy has promised he won’t put an omnibus spending bill on the floor, saying it is all part of his plan to change Congress into a more functional place that could make resolving an impasse harder. 

When asked whether there was a point at which Speaker McCarthy would need to cut loose the die-hard dissidents, GOP Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska said, “It seems to be the obvious answer. If you want to get things done to give to the president, whether it is the NDAA or the farm bill…at some point, you have to find enough Democrats.”