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Republicans Start to Devour Their Own Over Looming Shutdown

Disagreements between mainstream members of the GOP caucus and their far-right colleagues are getting personal.

Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy

With fewer than two weeks until the federal government is set to run out of funding, House Republicans—and their inability to reach consensus among themselves about how to proceed—could be the biggest obstacle to avoiding a shutdown.

House GOP leadership pulled a procedural vote on Tuesday on a stopgap funding bill that would keep the government running for another 30 days. The reason: Many members of the House Freedom Caucus rejected a proposal crafted by both far-right and mainstream factions of the Republican conference over the weekend. Just hours later, a procedural vote to advance a defense appropriations bill failed, with five Republicans voting against it.

None of this bodes well for avoiding a government shutdown. Anything the House passes is almost certain to fail in the Senate, meaning negotiations between the two chambers and the White House will be necessary. The fact that Republicans cannot even agree among themselves illustrates both the scope of the challenge and the disproportionate power of the House GOP’s right wing—a dynamic that is beginning to annoy their more mainstream colleagues in the conference.

With no solution in sight, other House Republicans are beginning to complain about “the tail wagging the dog” and the “stupidity” of the whole situation.

“The patience is gone for most of us. Which is unfortunate because we have a chance to do great things,” Representative Don Bacon told me last week. Bacon represents a swing district and is a member of the Main Street Caucus, a group of Republicans who bill themselves as “pragmatic conservatives.”

This is not the first time a small, recalcitrant group of conservatives has gummed up the works for this Republican majority. A cadre of hard-right representatives attempted to block McCarthy from becoming speaker in January, forcing 15 ballots before he finally got the gavel. And then conservatives temporarily stymied House operations in June due to their frustrations with a deal to raise the debt ceiling McCarthy and President Joe Biden negotiated.

These members are not only holding a hard line on the shutdown fight but are threatening McCarthy’s speakership as well. Representative Matt Gaetz has been particularly vocal in his disdain for McCarthy, repeatedly threatening to bring forward a motion to vacate, which would force a vote to remove the speaker from his position. McCarthy basically dared his critics to press forward, saying in a closed-door conference meeting last week that they should “move the fucking motion.”

“This is beginning to appear to be more than just a fight about doing 12 appropriations bills, or what the top-line number is. It’s more about angling for a fight with the speaker—and nobody wins,” said Representative Steve Womack, an institutionalist member of the conference and the chair of the financial services subcommittee on the House Appropriations Committee. “Then you’ve got once again, as we say in Arkansas, the tail wagging the dog.”

Despite their outsize influence, these far-right lawmakers represent a small minority of the conference. While a dozen or so opposed McCarthy’s bid for speaker, more than 200 Republican representatives stuck with him.

It may seem counterintuitive that such a small faction has such significant leverage, but the hard-line conservatives have two distinct advantages: First, they are willing to obstruct their own party’s success to achieve their goals. Moderate and more mainstream conservative Republicans, on the other hand, would rather not risk a shutdown to make a political point or squeeze concessions from party leadership.

“It’s in their nature to be part of the team, not to be the squeaky wheels,” said Liam Donovan, a longtime GOP consultant, about moderate Republicans. Moreover, hard-right Republicans are generally unbothered by the prospect of a shutdown because unlike their swing-district colleagues, they will pay no political price for taking an extreme stance. “All hell breaking loose is their happy place,” Donovan continued. Moderate Republicans, on the other hand, have to worry not only about general election contests but also about receiving a primary challenge from their right if they hew too close to the center.

The second advantage hard-liners have is the microscopic size of the Republican majority. Former GOP Representative Chris Stewart retired last week, leaving Republicans with a four-seat majority. They are unlikely to garner any Democratic support for a partisan short-term funding measure, so Speaker Kevin McCarthy cannot afford to lose more than four GOP votes. That gives outsize leverage to any faction willing to use it.

While he expressed frustration with the “five to 10 people who aren’t willing to compromise or give an inch back,” Bacon indicated that most Republicans in the conference are unwilling to use the far-right’s hardball tactics.

“I just don’t think it serves the conference well to do the same things that they’re doing,” Bacon told me last week. “We want to be team players and sit at the table and make the best deal.” As for how to address those recalcitrant “five or 10” Republicans, he continued: “I’ve got some ideas with how we can do it, but I’d rather not talk about how we’d like to push back.”

The tensions between the hard-line conservatives and the more mainstream Republicans are becoming clearer. “This is not conservative Republicanism. This is stupidity. The idea [that] we are going to shut the government down when we don’t control the Senate, we don’t control the White House,” Representative Mike Lawler, a moderate Republican, told CNN on Monday. “If you want to have a stronger hand, run better candidates and win more elections. If you keep running lunatics, you will be in this position.”

Womack suggested that the disagreements may be more personal than political or strategic. “There are personality conflicts at work involving certain members and the speaker, and … this is coming down to a situation where they want to fight the speaker, and that is really unfortunate,” Womack told reporters on Tuesday, perhaps obliquely referring to Gaetz’s mission to unseat McCarthy. “We’re the governing majority, with a narrow majority, and we have to have everybody on the rope pulling in the same direction. And I think we’ve got some folks in the conference who just simply will not pull their weight in the direction the conference legitimately needs to go.”

However, not every Republican is as fatalistic. Representative David Schweikert, who represents a swing district, gave the “pathological optimistic” take that having such a small majority required members to listen to each other, which would then result in consensus. He argued that the friction between members highlighted an appreciation among all Republicans that they need to address outsize government spending and a ballooning deficit.

“In some ways, if we did really fast, easy, smooth, then you’d realize no one is paying attention to the scale of the problem,” Schweikert said. “The fact there’s fights is that there’s also the ultimate symbol that there’s an understanding of the scale of the debt, deficit, and demographic issues.”

Another moderate, Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, said he was not frustrated with his more conservative colleagues. “Everyone has the right to vote their district,” said Fitzpatrick, who represents a district President Joe Biden won in 2020, like Schweikert and Bacon. “I don’t judge them for managing their districts. I ask the same consideration from them.”

Still, this intraparty impasse appears likely to lead to a government shutdown. Representative Tim Burchett, who was among the small group of conservatives who temporarily blocked the House from moving forward on several bills in June, told me on Tuesday that he believed there would be a government shutdown at the end of the month. However, he believes there is “no civil war” among the GOP conference. He compared the Republican majority to how Democrats operated under former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“The Democrats just did a great job of carrot and stick. They knew if they got off the reservation, they’d get popped real hard, and if they had to make a tough vote, then Speaker Pelosi would probably be rewarding them. And we don’t do that,” Burchett said. When I asked if he believed McCarthy lacked the political acumen of Pelosi, he replied: “No, I’m saying that—well, he’s not as mean as she is.”

With no clear consensus on passing any appropriations bills or a continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government, it’s unclear how House Republicans move forward. Fitzpatrick, a co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said on Tuesday that the GOP gridlock could result in an outcome many conservatives dread: working with Democrats to get the 218 votes necessary to pass a bill. (The Messenger first reported on Monday that the Problem Solvers Caucus has been working on a compromise to avoid a government shutdown and provide additional aid to Ukraine.)

“We’ve got to keep trying to get to yes, and if we can’t and we’re coming too close to the deadline, then Plan B,” Fitzpatrick said. “Plan B is 218 in the Congress, and not the conference.”