October 2, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Most of the Republicans seem relieved that Kevin McCarthy turned to the Democrats for help
Rare consensus on the real source of dysfunction in the Congress.
It turns out that the government did not shut down over the weekend. At the last minute, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy turned to the Democrats for help. The stopgap measure does not include billions in additional funding for Ukraine, as the president had wanted, but it does boost disaster relief, meeting his full request. The Senate quickly turned the package around late Saturday for Joe Biden to sign. It will fund the government through Nov. 17.
I have to admit that the news surprised me.
I had expected McCarthy to appease his right flank by letting the government close in order to protect his job – while also increasing pressure on GOP “moderates.” Shutdowns are painful. Federal workers are furloughed. Military personnel work without pay. Programs and services that people rely on are disrupted. With such broadly felt pain, the “moderates” might find the courage to stand up to the insurgents.
But none of that was necessary. At the 11th hour, McCarthy ditched draconian cuts to critical safety-net programs – such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). That opened the way for support from the opposition. I was wrong. McCarthy didn’t need to hurt his own to get his own to stand up to his own, as I had argued. All he needed was the Democratic caucus.
Matt Gaetz’s threat seems less potent because of what appears to be a growing consensus among the Republicans themselves that he and others can’t be trusted to stand by their demands, and that McCarthy’s position is compromised by continuously trying to appease them.
Attention has already turned to McCarthy’s job. As a condition for his speakership, he agreed in January to a revised rule that would allow a single member of either party to call a “motion to vacate the chair.” Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, one of the Republican insurgents, told CNN Sunday that he would call for such a motion this week. “This agreement that he made with Democrats to really blow past a lot of the spending guardrails we had set up is a last straw,” he said. “I think we need to move on with new leadership that can be trustworthy.”
That seemed like a potent threat before Saturday’s vote. It doesn’t seem that way now. The final tally in the House was 335-91. Most of the Republicans and nearly all the Democrats supported it. (In the Senate, the margin was even wider, 88-9.) These are huge bipartisan numbers. McCarthy saved “moderates” who are invested in their reputations for being reasonable Republicans from going home to explain why disrupting life with a needless shutdown is a reasonable thing to do.
Gaetz may assume that even if “moderates” stick with McCarthy that the Democratic caucus will vote against him simply because he’s not a Democrat. That’s probably assuming too much. First, there’s the tradition of letting the parties sort out for themselves who leads them. Second, McCarthy is the devil they know. (Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has recommended that the Democrats stay out of it.)
But mostly Gaetz’s threat seems less potent because of what appears to be a growing consensus among the Republicans themselves that he and others can’t be trusted to stand by their demands, and that McCarthy’s position is compromised by continuously trying to appease them.
New York Congressman Mike Lawler, who represents a swing district, seemed to speak to that. In a piece for CNN, he accused Gaetz and others of “trying to shut it all down for their own self-aggrandizement, and I won’t sit idly by and stay silent about what they’re doing. These folks don’t know what they want, they can’t define a win, they won’t accept ‘yes’ for an answer, and they refuse to work together as a team.”
McCarthy himself may have been chastened after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called him out for not standing by his word. Party leaders had agreed to maintain current spending levels after a spring agreement to avoid debt default. Since then, McCarthy has let the insurgents re-litigate that agreement. “The leaders of the House, the Senate, the White House, we all shook hands on this deal, but now the Speaker, and only the Speaker, is going back on his word,” Schumer said. “Speaker McCarthy has made a shutdown far more likely.”
I wouldn’t go as far as Robert Reich does in saying that maybe the Republicans have finally broken their fever. Chaos, dysfunction and disorder are still their primary focus and forte. And anyway, current funding levels expire mid-November. There’s a long, long way to go.
That said, periods of political instability, like the one that we’re in, evolve into periods of stability when one of the parties stops acting like the other one is illegitimate. McCarthy brought in the Democrats, and most of the rest of his conference seems relieved that he did. That’s a sign of something healthy. Is it a broken Republican fever? I doubt it.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.