How Kevin McCarthy Defied the Freedom Caucus and Averted a Shutdown

On Saturday morning, Kevin McCarthy surprised everyone in Washington, including members of his own divided conference, by turning to Democrats to pass a stopgap funding measure to avert a government shutdown. This had been the only path forward for several days, if not weeks. But he resisted it, mostly because his own political survival was

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On Saturday morning, Kevin McCarthy surprised everyone in Washington, including members of his own divided conference, by turning to Democrats to pass a stopgap funding measure to avert a government shutdown. This had been the only path forward for several days, if not weeks. But he resisted it, mostly because his own political survival was at stake. Not only had about twenty members from the rogue right flank of his party opposed any compromise with the Democrat-controlled Senate, but several of them had threatened McCarthy outright: if he capitulated, they’d strip him of the speakership. One member, Matt Gaetz, who’s always been more of a chaos agent than an ideologue, made it clear that he’d try to oust McCarthy regardless. A Republican staffer referred to Gaetz as the leader of the “we-just-hate-Kevin coalition.”

McCarthy’s leadership style has long been a point of strength and of weakness: he is a conciliator, not an agenda-setter. “The way he maneuvers is he gives everyone what they want,” a senior Hill staffer once told me. “It’s all about member management. His constituents are the members of the Republican conference.” For the past nine months, McCarthy has done everything possible to appease the far-right faction, known as the House Freedom Caucus. His most notable concession was to reinstate a procedural mechanism called the motion to vacate the chair, which allows a single member to call a vote to oust the Speaker. He’s also given Freedom Caucus members more control over House rules and created, at their insistence, a subcommittee on “the weaponization of the federal government.” On September 12th, when representatives returned to Washington after the summer recess, McCarthy caved again, and announced a formal impeachment inquiry into the President. “We will go wherever the evidence takes us,” he said.

Despite his best efforts, a clash with the Freedom Caucus was unavoidable. Since its creation in 2src15, its members have warred with G.O.P. leadership, moving to oust John Boehner, blocking McCarthy’s bid to succeed him, and then antagonizing Paul Ryan after he took over. Boehner famously called them “legislative terrorists.” On Friday, I spoke with a former G.O.P. leadership staffer who delivered a grave prognosis for McCarthy’s speakership. In prior Republican Congresses, the Freedom Caucus was more unified but less powerful. “We had a bigger majority, so the H.F.C. had to act in unison to have leverage, and they had one list of demands,” the former staffer said. “Now everyone has a different list of demands, and they all have individual power.”

The G.O.P. has a five-vote majority in the House, so McCarthy has been vulnerable from the start. In January, he suffered an embarrassing setback when twenty conservative Republicans, nearly all from the Freedom Caucus, blocked his election as Speaker. It took fifteen rounds of voting for McCarthy to earn the support of a majority. The holdouts relented only after he made several promises behind closed doors. These were hand-shake agreements, but some of them were explicit and widely reported on. McCarthy, for example, appointed Freedom Caucus members to key committees and leadership posts, essentially bringing them into the fold. “They’ve been used to never having a seat at the table,” one Republican told me at the time. “They’d bitch and moan about it, and go on Fox. That’s changed since the Speaker’s vote.”

This spring, during a battle over raising the debt ceiling, House conservatives were willing to force a federal default to cut government spending. The bill that McCarthy used to negotiate with the White House was shaped by the Freedom Caucus. But, when he modified it, as everyone knew he would, in order to reach a deal that was announced on Memorial Day weekend, members of the Freedom Caucus felt betrayed. Dan Bishop, a representative from North Carolina, told reporters that, in response, he was prepared to vote against McCarthy’s speakership. “It is inescapable to me,” he said. “It has to be done.” The rest of the caucus, though, wasn’t ready. On a members-only phone call, its chairman, Scott Perry, of Pennsylvania, reportedly said, “Let’s see. It’s premature.”

Chip Roy, of Texas, a prominent Freedom Caucus member, was disappointed by the debt-ceiling increase, but when we spoke last month he was still reluctant to burn his relationship with the Speaker. “We ran into disagreement on Memorial Day,” he told me. “We’ve been trying to work hand in hand with the leadership team to honor what we generally were agreeing to.” There were specific policy outcomes Roy wanted, though they were all non-starters in the Senate; he has publicly embraced the idea of shutting down the government to make his point. A few days ago, he called for significant spending cuts and a continuing resolution tied to “the single strongest border-security measure we’ve ever seen.” More broadly, he and his colleagues were trying to achieve “a directional shift, a trajectory shift,” he had told me. For the first time, in his view, leadership wasn’t managing the conference with top-down directives. There was a new measure of openness that allowed the most conservative members to have their say. “It’s not a ‘you didn’t adhere to X, so down with you!’ ” Roy said. “The fact is, what we’re trying to seek is change.” He added, “We have largely done that.”

The vote to shut down the government, which was about next year’s federal budget, was a continuation of the conflict from the spring. House Republicans didn’t have a policy or a principle to justify the extremity of their position on the eve of the shutdown. It would have been the result of their own infighting. Earlier this week, once it was clear that the Party’s recalcitrant members were immoveable, McCarthy attempted to resurrect a pretext for what his conference was about to do. He attached funding for border security to a continuing resolution in the House to keep the government open. In large part, the idea was to try to lure outliers into supporting the measure. “If they want to stand with the President by keeping the border open, I think that’d be a wrong position,” he said. But it was also a transparent ploy to put Democrats on the defensive by making it seem like the shutdown had something to do with actual policy. The resolution had no chance of passing the Senate, and soon it was moot anyway: McCarthy’s own members voted it down. “A CR, is, in my very definition, a continuation of Nancy Pelosi spending, and it’s Joe Biden’s policies,” Matt Rosendale, a Montana Republican,
said. “I voted against these things for two years. So I’m not going to now turn around and vote for a continuation of those.”

On Saturday morning, after another stopgap measure had failed, as predicted, the Republicans held a meeting to air their grievances. The government was due to shut down by the end of the day. The last time that happened, in 2src19, four hundred and twenty thousand public employees were forced to work without pay, and another three hundred and eighty thousand were furloughed. This time, the economic and social consequences would be vast. Each week could cost the national economy roughly six billion dollars, according to one projection, and ten thousand low-income students would lose access to Head Start programs. Funding for SNAP benefits, or food stamps, could dry up. Because the cause of a potential shutdown was an internecine political conflict, rather than a disagreement on policy, there wasn’t an obvious compromise that could end it. Members expected it to last for weeks, if not longer.

A group of moderates from toss-up districts stated their case that a protracted shutdown would destroy their reëlection prospects. One of them compared the path the Party was on to a bike route down a Bolivian mountain known as the Death Road. According to CNN, McCarthy cut in to ask his members, “Do we want to jam the Senate?” There were cheers from everyone but the most conservative members. McCarthy was referring to a continuing resolution to keep the government open for another month and a half. The Senate had already proposed a “clean C.R.” to buy time with a bill that had few strings attached; McCarthy now wanted to offer another one that didn’t include additional funding for Ukraine. Any “clean” bill was anathema to the Freedom Caucus, since it meant keeping the government open without any major concessions from the Senate or the White House.

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