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McCarthy's dilemma: Save his speakership or keep the government open

Some conservatives say they won't vote for a short-term bill to keep the government open. If Speaker Kevin McCarthy wants to avoid a shutdown, he'll likely need Democrats' help.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks with reporters about the debt ceiling negotiations at the Capitol on May 24.Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP file

WASHINGTON — Kevin McCarthy faces an unenviable choice this week: keep his job as speaker, or team up with Democrats to keep the government from shutting down.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and other conservative hard-liners are threatening to overthrow McCarthy, R-Calif., if he works with Democrats to pass a short-term, stopgap measure to keep the government open.

But McCarthy may have to do just that, putting a continuing resolution, or CR, on the floor in the coming days if he wants to stave off a highly disruptive shutdown when money for the federal government runs out at midnight Saturday. A shutdown would have far-reaching consequences, halting paychecks for hundreds of thousands of troops, border agents and other federal workers.

“He has a career-altering decision to make,” explained one House Republican lawmaker.

Asked if he was prepared to team up with Democrats to keep the lights on, McCarthy suggested he’s not quite ready to go there yet: “I believe we have a majority here, and we can work together to solve this. It might take us a little longer, but this is important. We want to make sure we can end the wasteful spending that the Democrats have put forth.”

We’d like to hear from you about how you’re preparing for a possible government shutdown and whether you might be out of work or feel the effects of shuttered services. We're also interested to know if you're a member of the military who could miss out on paychecks. Please contact us at tips@nbcuni.com or reach out to us here.

With just five days before a shutdown, McCarthy frantically worked through the long Yom Kippur holiday weekend on a new GOP strategy, after two previous attempts to move a key military appropriations bill were blocked by conservatives on the floor.

The strategy, first pitched by Gaetz and moderate Rep. Marc Molinaro, R-N.Y., would package four individual appropriations bills — funding the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Agriculture, as well as state-foreign operations — under a single rule, though each bill would get its own vote on the floor. The four bills would cut billions of dollars in spending, something McCarthy hopes conservatives will view as a down payment in exchange for supporting a CR that would keep the government open temporarily and buy Republicans more time to pass the rest of their spending bills.

But there’s no guarantee McCarthy can round up enough GOP votes to pass either that funding package or a short-term bill to keep the government open — a scenario that would almost certainly force him to rely on Democrats to pass a “clean” CR to avoid a shutdown.

McCarthy, in short, faces a stark dilemma: shut down the government and keep it closed, or risk losing his speakership — the pinnacle of a two-decade career in elected politics — by striking a deal that Democrats can support.

“Kevin’s going to have to make that choice for himself,” Rep. Wiley Nickel, D-N.C., said during an appearance on MSNBC on Monday. “But it’s obvious that he’s not going to be able to fund the government if he’s working with the likes of Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene.”

Working with Democrats to fund the government, however, would almost certainly trigger a motion to vacate, which would force a vote on whether to oust McCarthy as speaker.

Conservative Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., said Sunday on CNN that he won’t support a short-term bill — and that if McCarthy passes one relying on Democratic votes, he would “look strongly at” overthrowing him.

“Our financial ship is sinking,” he said. “The curtain’s off. We need to do our duty.”

On Monday, the speaker made clear he didn’t want a shutdown but acknowledged the political reality: Because of the GOP’s razor-thin majority, just a handful of conservatives have the power to bring the floor to a standstill. And they have the backing of former President Donald Trump.

“You have to keep the government open. If people want to close the government, it only makes them weaker. Why would they want to stop paying the troops or stop paying the border agents or the Coast Guard? I don’t understand how that makes you stronger. I don’t understand what point you’re trying to make,” McCarthy told reporters.

But he added: “There’s always a handful of people who can stop anything. That same handful stopped us earlier in the year from doing anything on the floor.”

Greene, despite emerging as a central McCarthy ally this year, slammed the new McCarthy approach, saying it includes $300 billion in Ukraine aid that she opposes.

“The rule is the first step of advancing the blood money in Congress,” the Georgia Republican said in a blistering statement, referring to the four-funding-bill package. “Voting yes on the rule means more money for Ukraine. It’s that simple. No one who wants peace should vote yes on the rule to advance the bills. That’s why I’m a HARD NO on the rules package and a blank check for Ukraine!”

Gaetz, of Florida, has been the most outspoken in opposition to a short-term funding bill, publicly threatening to file a motion to vacate if McCarthy brings any CR to the floor. And Gaetz has vowed that he and a handful of other hard-right conservatives will oppose a CR no matter what.

“I’m giving a eulogy to the CR right now,” Gaetz told reporters last week. “I’m not voting for a continuing resolution, and a sufficient number of Republicans will never vote for a continuing resolution.”

If it comes to a motion to vacate, Democrats would have to decide whether to help oust the speaker or team up with McCarthy's GOP allies and bail him out. So far, Democrats from across the spectrum are staying mum on whether they’d save a GOP leader who supported Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and more recently launched an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.

Moderate Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., sidestepped a question about it on CNN, saying: “All we’re focused on is keeping the lights on this week.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said Democrats would “cross that bridge when we get to it.”

“Speaker McCarthy has been very weak. I think that he has also engaged in just absolutely terrible decision-making for the American people,” she said, adding: “That is something that the Democratic caucus would also have to come together on and decide how we want to navigate as a collective as well.”

Nickel, the House freshman from North Carolina, also suggested that Democrats are beginning to think about whether to save McCarthy’s political career.

“Katherine Clark, our whip, has made it clear that there’s certainly a discussion to be had and that there will be concessions if we do that,” Nickel said. “But I think that’s a good conversation. We ought to have those conversations, but they have not started at all.”

Privately, House Democrats' aides have voiced misgivings about the idea. One said Democrats “should not be a cheap date” and should only move to save McCarthy if he is willing to keep the government funded at the levels they agreed to in this year's debt ceiling fight, fund Biden’s requests on disaster aid and Ukraine money, end his “impeachment bulls---” and “stop letting the craziest members of his conference set the agenda.” 

A second aide said that if Democrats come out publicly for saving McCarthy, it would only strengthen his far-right detractors. The aide acknowledged that Democrats, by voting to protect McCarthy, could make his position within the GOP untenable either way.

Gaetz, in a testy exchange Sunday with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo, a McCarthy ally, blamed the whole debacle on the speaker for failing to act on spending bills until the last minute.

“We knew Sept. 30 was coming all year. And Kevin McCarthy has been dilatory. He’s been fiddling like Nero as Rome burns,” Gaetz told the host, adding that the House is taking up individual appropriations bills now “because we are making them."

"They’re doing it with a political gun to their head," Gaetz said. "And you are welcome, America.”