Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decisive moment came Friday night, after a tumultuous closed-door meeting of House Republicans showed once again he couldn’t budge hardliners from a series of contentious demands to prevent a government shutdown.
(Bloomberg) — Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decisive moment came Friday night, after a tumultuous closed-door meeting of House Republicans showed once again he couldn’t budge hardliners from a series of contentious demands to prevent a government shutdown.
The 58-year-old veteran lawmaker, whose sunny California optimism masks a steely determination for political survival, had barely 24 hours to go before heading into a politically risky shutdown with his party divided and no coherent set of demands.
It was time to face the inevitable. He would have to turn to Democrats to head off a potential disaster.
He was well aware of the risk — a threat hardliners regularly made to overthrow him — and had determined now was the time to trigger that attempt, according to a person familiar with the matter. Indeed, a far-right adversary, Matt Gaetz of Florida, would announce an ouster attempt before the weekend was over.
“I like to gamble,” McCarthy said later, reflecting on the calculation.
That set in motion a roller-coaster ride of a day on Saturday, including House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries delivering a 52-minute stemwinder to hold back a vote while his party frantically deliberated, a false fire alarm evacuating a House building and a shutdown averted with less than hour to spare.
By 11 p.m. Friday, the speaker and his vote-counting lieutenants hit the phones with a blitz of late-night and early morning calls to rank-and-file Republican members, lining up supporters for his gambit.
McCarthy’s team was mustering support for a “clean” package of temporary funding to keep the government open through Nov. 17, stripped of all the spending cuts and policy changes hardliners demanded. It provided funding for disaster assistance but not the Ukraine aid President Joe Biden sought.
Reception among Republican lawmakers was initially spotty. But a number of initial “No’s” were offering by dawn to switch to “Yes” — and then a few more — and some momentum appeared to be building. Among notable blocs of lawmakers flipping were former members of the military.
Still, by 7 a.m. Saturday, it wasn’t enough. Even if Democrats were to help pass the bill, McCarthy wanted at least half of House Republicans behind him. That wasn’t happening.
There was no guarantee of Democratic support, either. McCarthy had been scheduled to talk to Jeffries on Friday, before the later chaos of the House GOP meeting. But whatever was said, Democrats complained McCarthy’s bill was a sudden surprise.
The big problem was the absence of Ukraine money, despite the demands by the White House and Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.
Still, once McCarthy announced the package and filed its text, Democratic leaders reading the legislation privately realized it would be hard to oppose. Democrats then would risk blame for a shutdown.
McCarthy and his team shifted to a dramatic 9:30 a.m. closed-door meeting for all House Republicans. A high point was New York Representative Anthony D’Esposito, who represents a district Biden won in the last presidential election, rising to tell the party he and other swing-district members needed the legislation to pass.
Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas said McCarthy was “daring” Democrats to oppose the bill, because then “the shutdown would be their fault.”
Democrats were still wary. Jeffries assembled his party for their own closed-door meeting, and there were complaints they didn’t have time to read the bill.
Democrats turned to a variety of procedural tricks to stall a vote, including a time-consuming vote on a motion to adjourn — and Jeffries’ lengthy speech — making use of a privilege allowing party leaders unlimited time to speak on the House floor. A false fire alarm in a House office building added to the sense of chaos.
Some House Democrats hoped that the Senate would first pass a bipartisan measure that included the Ukraine aid Biden sought, potentially increasing their leverage in the House.
But in the Senate, Republican support crumbled for that once McCarthy acted. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who previously was a backer, told the press Republicans would block an effort to advance the Senate version of a shutdown bill that included the Ukraine aid.
Democrats were now in the politically untenable reality of owning a government shutdown over Ukraine aid unless they relented.
Over pizza in a basement meeting room back across the Capitol, House Democrats concluded after several hours that they had won. They came out cheering.
“We aren’t holding our votes back,” Virginia’s Gerry Connolly said. “We are going to fervently embrace this.”
The speaker also succeeded in winning the majority of his own party he sought. The House passed the temporary funding 335 to 91, with 209 Democrats and 126 Republicans voting in favor.
The rest of the day on the Senate side was spent collecting assurances from leaders including McCarthy on future support for Ukraine aid in order to smooth passage. Shortly after 11 p.m., less than an hour before a midnight deadline, the White House announced Biden had signed the legislation.
It didn’t take long for the threatened far-right mutiny to begin. Gaetz announced Sunday morning he intends to trigger a procedural move this week to remove the speaker.
On CBS’s “Face the Nation.” McCarthy responded: “Bring it on, let’s get over with it.”
–With assistance from Erik Wasson, Steven T. Dennis, Maeve Sheehey and Jonathan Tamari.
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