Inside McCarthy’s Shutdown Turnabout That Left His Speakership at Risk

Inside McCarthy’s Shutdown Turnabout That Left His Speakership at Risk

Speaker Kevin McCarthy began the final day before a government shutdown pinned against the ropes, facing dim prospects of passing any stopgap funding measure to avert the crisis that was to go into effect when the clock struck 12:01 a.m. on Sunday.

He ended it still on the ropes, having bucked expectations and passed a spending bill to keep the government open through mid-November — but only after being forced to turn to Democrats for help pushing through the legislation that his detractors denounced as a Republican surrender.

In between, there was a game of chicken between the House and the Senate over their competing stopgap spending plans, a fire alarm pulled by a progressive congressman in the Capitol complex, a 50-minute filibuster by the House minority leader as Democrats sought more time to figure out whether they wanted to help pass Mr. McCarthy’s plan, and more threats by Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida and his hard-right cohorts to call a vote to oust the speaker

“If someone wants to make a motion against me, bring it,” Mr. McCarthy said at a news conference after the stopgap spending bill passed 335 to 91, with far more Democrats than Republicans supporting it. “There has to be an adult in the room.”

For weeks, Mr. McCarthy had resisted that role, catering instead to the demands of the faction of right-wing lawmakers who were willing to shut down the government to make the point that Washington was broken and federal spending out of control. Mr. McCarthy’s turnabout reflected a recognition that he — a people-pleasing California Republican who more often reacts to events than drives them — was out of options to avert a shutdown, and spare his party the political blowback that would surely follow.

“If you’re the one executing it, you fail,” Representative Patrick T. McHenry, Republican of North Carolina and the speaker’s longtime sounding board, said of a shutdown earlier in the week. “It’s been tried before.”

So after suffering a resounding defeat on Friday, when right-wing lawmakers joined with Democrats to defeat an ultraconservative temporary spending bill, Mr. McCarthy decided to try a different approach. Convening Republicans in the basement of the Capitol on Saturday morning, as a shutdown appeared all but inevitable, he surprised his members by announcing that they were going to try again.

Gone from the legislative text were some of the policy proposals Republicans had been clamoring for, including severe immigration restrictions and steep spending cuts that would have made it impossible for Democrats to support it.

Gone, too, was the promise Mr. McCarthy had made in January to allow lawmakers 72 hours to review any legislation before it came to a vote. Instead, members were given about an hour to read and vote on a 71-page bill they had never seen before. And it would be considered under special rules that required a two-thirds majority for passage, meaning that it could not be approved without substantial Democratic support.

That was no sure thing.

“We’ll find out,” Mr. McCarthy said when asked if he had the votes to pass it. “I like to gamble.”

Mr. McCarthy was in a rush. He wanted to pass the measure before the Senate voted to advance a bipartisan stopgap measure that included $6 billion for Ukraine, which it was planning to do later in the day. In a bow to growing Republican resistance to funding Kyiv’s war effort, Mr. McCarthy’s bill did not include any in his temporary spending patch.

Blindsided Democrats were livid at the timing of it all, complaining that they needed much more than an hour to review a bill delivered to them by a Republican speaker they view as fundamentally untrustworthy and beholden to the far right.

“These guys lie like a rug,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts. “I don’t trust them.”

As he left the Democratic caucus meeting, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the minority leader, said that “the notion that we should accept the word of the extreme American MAGA Republicans, who at every step of the way lie to the American people, in this Congress is ridiculous.”

On the floor, Democrats used the rules to buy themselves time to read the bill, calling to adjourn the House so they could force a lengthy vote that would effectively stall action on the floor. In the Cannon House Office Building across the street, a fire alarm sounded, prompting an evacuation.

Representative Jamaal Bowman, a progressive Democrat from New York and former principal who regularly gets into screaming matches with far-right Republicans that create brief sensations online, was caught on camera pulling the alarm, in what he later claimed was an accident.

Republican senators watched the drama from the other end of the Capitol, weighing their options. If the House could pass a stopgap bill without aid for Ukraine, they did not want to vote for a measure that included the money, which some Republican senators also oppose. They, too, stalled action on the Senate floor, putting out word that they planned to vote against the Senate plan.

A group of hard-line G.O.P. House members, including Representatives Bob Good of Virginia, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Matt Rosendale of Montana, made a rare visit to the Senate where they huddled with Republican senators on the floor, encouraging them to hold off on any action until the House had a chance to vote on its own bill.

Across the Rotunda, as they gathered in the Capitol basement weighing whether to back the stopgap bill, House Democrats continued to play for time. Mr. Jeffries used what is known as a “magic minute,” a privilege afforded to top party leaders that allows them to speak on the floor for as long as they want, to deliver a 50-minute stemwinder in which he repeatedly decried “extreme MAGA Republicans.”

But Democrats knew that if they opposed the bill, Republicans would claim they cared more about sending money to Ukraine than they did about funding the American government. They decided to embrace the measure as a win and claim credit for forcing the G.O.P. to drop their massive proposed spending cuts and tough border restrictions and averting a shutdown.

When the vote was called, 209 Democrats voted for it, far more than the 126 Republicans who did. When the final vote was recorded, both sides of the chamber cheered, in a rare moment of bipartisanship on the deeply divided House floor.

Mr. McCarthy even engaged in what looked like an amicable exchange with Mr. McGovern, who in recent days had called him the weakest speaker in history and said that calling his conference a clown show was doing a disservice to actual clowns.

But Mr. McCarthy, aware that he had put himself at considerable political risk, did not stick around long. He quickly dispatched Republicans to adjourn the House, leaving the Senate little choice but to take up and pass the stopgap measure — and making it impossible for right-wing rebels to make an immediate motion to remove him.

In a news conference after the bill’s passage, leaders were still reeling from the twists and turns that had averted the crisis. Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the No. 3 Republican, described the experience as akin to “riding a mechanical bull all week.”

Mr. McCarthy, for his part, lauded himself for having done the right thing, in contrast to the rebels who he said had left him no choice but to partner with Democrats.

“I’m a type of conservative who wants to get things done,” Mr. McCarthy said. “It’s easy to be a conservative who wants to do nothing.”

As the House adjourned for the weekend, many Americans — including millions of federal workers and military personnel who had been bracing to work without pay — breathed a sigh of relief that the government was not going to shut down.

But Mr. McCarthy’s fate was more of an open question than ever, as his foes signaled they would soon move to depose him.

“He allowed the DC Uniparty to win again,” Mr. Biggs wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “Should he remain Speaker of the House?”

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