McCarthy’s latest challenge: Prevent shutdown while avoiding GOP revolt

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is fresh from a successful effort to raise the debt ceiling but now faces what might be an even tougher challenge: preventing a government shutdown without sparking an all-out revolt within his own Republican conference. 

House GOP leaders return to Washington next week after a long Independence Day recess with one major item on the summer docket: moving 12 appropriations bills to the Senate and putting pressure on upper-chamber Democrats to swallow some Republican priorities. 

Yet the GOP conference is sharply divided in its approach to 2024 spending, pitting centrists and leadership allies — who concede the need for a bipartisan compromise on government funding — against conservative hard-liners demanding deep cuts, back to 2022 levels, in defiance of the deal McCarthy cut with President Biden earlier in the month.

The dynamics set the stage for a punishing July for McCarthy and GOP leaders, who are racing to win over the conservative holdouts and move the spending bills with just a razor-thin majority that allows scant room for defections. 

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Complicating their effort, the conservative hard-liners — who felt burned by McCarthy’s handling of the debt ceiling package — say they’ve taken a lesson from that fight and are now vowing to use their considerable leverage, as well as hardball tactics, to force the Speaker to hold a tougher line in the spending debate. If the government shuts down in the process, they say that’s a price they’re willing to pay.

The factors have combined to highlight the tenuous grip McCarthy has on his conference, heighten the threat to his Speakership and increase the odds of a government shutdown later in the year.

To say McCarthy’s task is difficult, said Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), is “the understatement of possibly the decade.”

"But difficult is not impossible,” he quickly added. “We're more united than perhaps the mainstream media would give us credit for.” 

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Central to the fight is a promise McCarthy made to his conservative detractors in January, as a condition of winning their support for his Speakership, to fight to cut next year’s spending back to last year’s levels. McCarthy, backed by top GOP appropriators, says they’re ready to make good on that vow. But the conservatives are skeptical, accusing the Speaker of using budget gimmicks, known as rescissions, to disguise higher levels of spending — a strategy the conservatives say they’ll oppose

McCarthy huddled with members of the far-right Freedom Caucus just before the recess in an effort to persuade the hard-liners that he shares their deficit-cutting goals. But no agreements were made, and conservatives left the meeting unconvinced of McCarthy’s commitment to the steep cuts they’re demanding — clear evidence that GOP leaders still lack the votes to pass their bills. 

“People are still searching for how we resolve that, and how we form unity around a single idea with respect to how the appropriations are getting resolved,” said Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), a frequent McCarthy critic. 

“We had an agreement on fiscal year 2022 discretionary spending levels,” he added. “I’m not persuaded by the notion that starting there and then buying those up with rescissions amounts to the performance of that objective.”

Still, McCarthy and his allies remain optimistic that they can move the 12 spending bills, not only through committee but also on the floor, in time to avoid a short-term spending patch in September, known as a continuing resolution, or CR. 

“[We’re] making sure that we stay on schedule to get the bills done, don't put ourselves into a situation where we take too much time and are unable to do a negotiation,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a close McCarthy ally, told reporters just before the break. “That doesn't play into our hands very well and it ends up pushing you into [a] CR path, where I don't think we really want to be.”

While the House is marking up spending bills below the levels agreed to in the debt limit bill — an attempt to appease conservatives — the Senate kicked off the appropriations process using the numbers from the original agreement, putting the two chambers on a collision course and further raising the chances of a government shutdown.

At least one moderate House Republican, however, predicts that the Senate will prevail in the chamber vs. chamber battle, which would deal a blow to conservatives and likely spark a right-wing headache for McCarthy.

“When it’s all said and done, you're gonna end up with the debt ceiling agreement,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told The Hill late last month. “Because the Senate’s not gonna go more conservative, and we’re not gonna let them spend more.”

Upping the pressure another notch, the debt limit deal struck by Biden and McCarthy included a provision that incentivizes Congress to pass all 12 appropriations bills by threatening to cut government spending by 1 percent across the board if the measures are not approved by Jan. 1, 2024.

So far, the House Appropriations Committee has cleared half of the partisan bills, with hopes of approving the remaining six bills in the coming weeks.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who serves on the appropriations panel, told The Hill before the recess that the “best outcome” would be if the GOP-led House is able to get all 12 bills across the floor. But he also said “leadership needs to see, can they produce these bills.”

“Can they get them across the floor?” he said. “If they do — and again, that will have to be without Democratic support, just like it was for the debt ceiling — they were in a position to sit down and have a genuine negotiation.”

A failure of House Republicans to pass their partisan appropriations bills as a starting point in the coming negotiations with the Senate would diminish the GOP’s leverage in that battle. 

Republican leaders have credited House passage of their previous partisan plan to raise the debt ceiling, along with proposals to slash trillions of dollars in government spending, as key in getting Democrats to swallow some of those cuts. 

The final bipartisan plan was much more modest than the proposal initially passed by Republicans in late April. However, GOP leaders say party unity was critical in strengthening McCarthy’s hand at the negotiating table with Biden.

To achieve the same unity in the spending debate, however, the Speaker must toe a difficult line in the weeks ahead as he works to secure more pull in the future talks with Democrats. Leaving town late last month, GOP leaders said the internal discussions would continue through the break. And lawmakers of all stripes said there is one goal in mind: "We're gonna do whatever we can to make sure that we cut as much as we can and maintain 218 [votes]," said Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.). 

That’s a tall order, given the current divisions and the closing window before government funding expires Oct. 1. But even many conservatives predict they will ultimately prevail. 

“The devil's in the details, of course,” Higgins said. “[But] we are united in purpose, and I envision us getting to 218.”