WASHINGTON — For the second time this week, House Republicans on Thursday failed to start debate on a key military funding bill after five conservative rebels blocked the measure over demands for additional spending cuts.
The defeat was yet another public embarrassment for Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California and House Republicans as Washington barrels toward a government shutdown. Then, they left town for the week.
"We are very dysfunctional right now," Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., said, adding that the failure proves that GOP leaders "obviously can't count" votes, unlike Democrats. Referring to McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., he said, "Speaker Pelosi, love her or hate her, she put something out there and they'd rally around it."
McCarthy had vowed that the House would work through the weekend to find a solution to the crisis, with votes expected through Saturday. Now, they've canceled votes for Friday and the weekend, telling members they'll get "ample notice" if any votes are scheduled.
Moderate Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., who faces a tough re-election bid next year, has described the GOP dysfunction as a "clown show" and warned that pragmatists would work with Democrats to keep the government funded.
"For my colleagues, they have to come to a realization: If they are unable or unwilling to govern, others will. And in a divided government where you have Democrats controlling the Senate, a Democrat controlling the White House, there needs to be a realization that you're not going to get everything you want," he said.
"And just throwing a temper tantrum and stomping your feet, frankly not only is it wrong — it's pathetic," he added.
The House paralysis bodes ill for preventing a government shutdown at the end of the month, as Republicans remain unable to pass messaging bills that would represent their opening bid and have no chance of passing the Democratic-led Senate. The infighting could only escalate when they have to make policy compromises to accept a bill that President Joe Biden can sign into law.
“At the end of the day, any final bill is going to be bipartisan. And if somebody doesn’t realize that, they’re truly clueless,” Lawler said.
Thursday's vote failed 212-216. The Republicans who voted no were Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Dan Bishop of North Carolina, Matt Rosendale of Montana and Andy Biggs and Eli Crane, both of Arizona. Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., later switched his vote to no, a procedural move that will allow him to bring the bill up again.
Referring to a short-term funding bill known as a continuing resolution, or CR, Bishop said: “The problem is we’ve been doing CRs for 25 years or longer. And that works the same way. Lather, rinse, repeat. The Washington wash cycle. So there’s another CR, and they get to a few days before Christmas, and they pass a monstrous omnibus. That’s exactly the path. We all see it. We all recognize it. The only way to change it is to change it.”
Crane, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus who is in his first term of Congress, said he is demanding lower spending levels and wants no more aid for Ukraine.
Constituents “understand there’s no appetite to quit spending money we don’t have, and they expect me to do whatever I can to stop it and to change how we do business up here,” he said.
GOP absences also played a role in Thursday's failed vote. Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., is undergoing cancer treatment; Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., just had a baby; and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., is recovering from surgery.
"For medical purposes, we don't have everybody here. If we had everybody here, we'd win," McCarthy said after the vote. He added that he wasn't giving up, but he expressed frustration at his members who were preventing the House from even debating the spending bills.
"It's frustrating in the sense that I don't understand how anyone votes against bringing the idea up and having the debate," he said. "This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down. That doesn't work."
House Republicans had reported significant progress after a more than two-hour "family meeting" in the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday evening. McCarthy and others had hoped that a successful vote on the military bill would hand Republicans some momentum to pass a short-term funding bill to avert a government shutdown set for Oct. 1.
After hours of discussion at that meeting, McCarthy pitched a new strategy for House Republicans in the funding fight.
Caving in to demands of the hard-right rebels, he agreed to move a one-month continuing resolution with a topline funding level of $1.471 trillion — much lower than the Senate’s CR, according to lawmakers leaving the meeting. House Republicans will need to pass something that can also get through the Democratic-controlled Senate and earn Biden's signature before midnight Sept. 30 to avoid a shutdown.
The House Republicans’ CR also would include much of their border funding bill, known as HR 2, and it would create a commission to study ways to tackle the national debt.
Finally, under McCarthy’s plan, other fiscal year 2024 appropriations bills would be marked to the topline number of $1.526 trillion, lawmakers said.
"I think there's large consensus to do that," Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., a Freedom Caucus member who has been a thorn in McCarthy's side in the past. "Now, do we have 218? I don't know. But I would hope we could pass it out of the House so that we could give the Senate the opportunity to avoid a government shutdown, to cut some spending and, equally important, to secure the border."
Even if House Republicans can pass their CR, it wouldn't solve the looming shutdown. The GOP's short-term bill would be dead on arrival in the Senate, where leaders are pushing for a so-called clean CR with the addition of disaster aid and a supplemental package for Ukraine.
Some Republicans doubted McCarthy's new approach would work. A vocal foe, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., told his colleagues at Wednesday's meeting that there were seven GOP no votes for any CR, enough to tank it, though Good and others pushed back against Gaetz's math.
"I am not voting for a CR. I am not voting for a CR," Gaetz told reporters.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democratic appropriator, described the House GOP situation as “a collapse” that proves there “really isn’t any leadership” in the party.
“You cannot be in a position of shutting the government down,” she said. “That’s not what our job is.”