Congress left Washington for their month-plus August recess with one goal in mind: to have the best summer of their lives. Some got into fights with the cops at a rodeo. Others went to check out the sights and scenes of the Holy Land. Most simply did events in their districts or watched golf on TV.
School is now about to restart. Congress begins its return to Washington this week as the Senate reenters session on Tuesday; the House is back next week.
The fresh spirit of return may not last long, though, as all indications are pointing to a government shutdown at the end of September.
As always, the source of the logjam is the usual suspect: Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney. Just kidding, it’s the far-right House Freedom Caucus, which is insisting on unlikely provisions in exchange for its votes to fund the government, and can do so because it basically owns House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
It all goes back to the debt ceiling resolution of the spring, which the Freedom Caucus still hasn’t gotten over. The Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was signed into law in early June, made some spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. This was not an exciting bill that pleased either side. It was the legislative equivalent of Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy looking at bread that had begun to show bluish-green mold spots, shrugging their shoulders, and deciding to make a sandwich with it anyway.
But the bread was not nearly moldy enough for the Freedom Caucus’ discerning palate. They wanted much deeper spending cuts. So after the Fiscal Responsibility Act passed, a group of Freedom Caucus members blockaded Republican leaders from taking any bills to the floor for a week in protest.
Eventually, a deal was reached: House Republicans would write the upcoming spending for the next fiscal year at levels significantly lower than those that had just been agreed to in the debt ceiling deal. That set the House on a collision course with the Senate that, at the very least, would take much more time to resolve. In August, McCarthy told members that his plan was to pass a continuing resolution—a bill that keeps the government funded at current levels until early December—to give Congress a little more time to sort out a long-term funding deal.
The Freedom Caucus, whose votes McCarthy needs to pass party-line legislation, rejected this flatly. In a statement in late August, its members said they would not agree to any short-term spending bill extending funding at the current “grossly” bloated levels. Further, they said they would oppose any short-term bill that didn’t include House Republicans’ signature border security bill, or “address the unprecedented weaponization of the Justice Department and FBI,” or end “woke” policies at the Pentagon.
This may sound like an opening bid in negotiations between McCarthy and the Freedom Caucus. Alternately: It really is the Freedom Caucus’ position, and its most hardcore members really do not care if the government shuts down or not.
Texas Rep. Chip Roy, the fiery policy chair for the Freedom Caucus and a member of the House Rules Committee, said in an August interview that he would use “use every tool I have at my disposal to stop a continuing resolution structured” in a way he found unacceptable, and that he still insists spending levels should return to their “pre-COVID” levels. In terms of addressing border policy, he said that “we as a Republican Congress should put our entire careers and our entire ownership of the House of Representatives on the line to stop funding that smirking son-of-a-bitch Alejandro Mayorkas, who is the secretary of Homeland Security and shouldn’t be.” Okey doke.
South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, another Rules Committee member, said that “if a shutdown occurs, then so be it,” while Virginia Rep. Bob Good, perhaps the most persistent antagonist of McCarthy, said that “eighty-five percent or so of the government continues to operate” under a government shutdown, “and most Americans won’t even miss it.”
The party that gets blamed for a government shutdown, though, typically does see its approval numbers drop, at least in the short term. And there’s a good rule of thumb for which party will get blamed for a government shutdown: The one making the extraneous ask. In 2013, Republicans got the blame for their quixotic demand to “defund Obamacare.” In 2018–19, President Trump was blamed for the shutdown over his insistence on funding a border wall. Democrats shut down the government in early 2018 when they insisted on protections for Dreamers; it lasted all of one weekend before they got the willies and backed down.
Which is a short way of saying, Republicans would likely face the blame for a shutdown if they’re the ones insisting on deeper spending cuts than those agreed to just a few months ago, as well as an end to the prosecution of Donald Trump. (Yes, Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde is readying some amendments defunding the offices of the prosecutors that have very rudely indicted Mr. Trump for behaving perfectly.)
Now, a “clean” continuing resolution extending government funding until early December could get something like 300-plus votes in the House, with all the normal-enough people voting for it. So why does Speaker McCarthy care what the “We don’t need a government anyway” rump of his conference says?
Because the Freedom Caucus’ leverage is that, at any moment, any one member of Congress could move to force another speaker’s election, which McCarthy might not win. The hardliners were peeved enough after the Fiscal Responsibility Act, feeling that McCarthy broke his word to them on the depth of the spending cuts he was willing to push for. Some view this spending fight as McCarthy’s chance to right the wrongs he made a few months ago. If McCarthy sidesteps them by passing a funding bill with Democratic votes, his speakership could be at risk.
I WILL NOT vote for any continuing resolution that doesn’t smash Biden’s DOJ into a million pieces. The DOJ has very rapidly become the enemy of the American people, and if nothing is done soon, our rights will be GONE. We MUST defund it!!
All right, so pencil one rodeo brawler into the whip sheet as a “NO (pending elimination of the Justice Department).” And what if he doesn’t get what he wants?
“It’s going to be detrimental to leadership in the House if they blow off the concerns of the people like myself and the Freedom Caucus and some of the other people on the right that are making reasonable demands,” Jackson said in an Aug. 22 interview with Steve Bannon. “It’s going to be a problem.”
Use of the motion to vacate the speaker, he said, is “inevitable” if “we continue to rely on the Democrats to pass important legislation out of the House.”
McCarthy enjoys being speaker, for some reason, and would like to keep his job. He’s tried to suggest that impeaching Biden would be set back by a government shutdown, but the hardliners aren’t buying that.
Barring an improbable atmospheric shift, then, the play would be for McCarthy to play along with the hardliners on a few provisions in negotiations with the Senate, watch them go nowhere, let the government shut down, make his best public case that it is actually Democrats’ fault for not eliminating federal law enforcement, and then move to reopen the government when that doesn’t work and his vulnerable members have had enough.
Normal country, normal political system.
Read More: Kevin McCarthy’s most extreme caucus is back and ready to make life difficult for him.