With the shocking ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, congressional Republicans find themselves grappling with the question of what happens next. Despite the temporary reprieve granted by this past weekend’s passage of a 45-day stopgap funding measure, Congress is limping toward another government shutdown threat. It was McCarthy’s support for that short-term funding bill that doomed him, as it swayed a small cadre of hard-line Republicans to vote for his removal. The nature of McCarthy’s downfall now poses an existential threat for whoever succeeds him as speaker.
It won’t be McCarthy. The former speaker has said that he will not seek the position again, and a few Republican representatives are gathering support to launch their own bids. But as the race to become the new speaker heats up, Senate Republicans are looking at the actions of their counterparts in the House with dismay.
“They don’t have a majority. What they have right now is a Republican Party, a Democrat Party, and a populist party,” Senator Mike Rounds told me, referring to the eight Republicans who voted to remove McCarthy from his position, along with every Democrat. “Those populists decided they were going to side with Democrats and remove the speaker, and now they have to decide whether or not they’re going to put a Democrat in, or whether they’re going to actually come back into the fold and work with other Republicans.”
Like many of their counterparts in the House, some Senate Republicans were particularly frustrated with Representative Matt Gaetz, who led the charge against McCarthy and filed the motion to vacate the chair. “Some people are better suited to be in the minority. The minority is a great place to play the loyal opposition; the majority is a great place to govern. It’s pretty clear Matt Gaetz isn’t interested in governing, and nor are seven other people, at least,” Senator Kevin Cramer said. “I’ve got to believe that even of the eight, six of them have to look at it the next day and think, ‘This isn’t as cool as I thought it would be.’”
Also not cool for members of Congress: complicating the ongoing efforts to keep the government open, if only because it will take up precious time that could otherwise be spent negotiating a funding deal. Congress barely avoided a government shutdown, passing a last-minute continuing resolution to fund the government through mid-November. Due to opposition from much of his conference, McCarthy relied on Democrats to push the stopgap measure across the finish line. (The former speaker’s decision to then blame the near-shutdown on Democrats, despite their almost unanimous support for keeping the government funded, was one of the reasons Democrats opted against bailing out McCarthy during the vote to remove him from office.)
The time crunch is significant: Although there is technically a month and a half before the government runs out of stopgap funding, Congress is not in session for all of those days. Conservative Republicans have balked at passing “omnibus” funding bills, which combine appropriations for all agencies into one massive piece of legislation, but it’s unclear whether Congress could pass 12 separate appropriations bills in the time remaining. The appropriations bills that the House has passed or considered are dead on arrival in the Senate, as they slash spending significantly and are chock-full of Republican priorities that will not fly with the Democratic-controlled upper chamber.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult to get through all of the appropriations bills, and at this point establishing a plan in the House is difficult because we don’t know who the leader in the House is going to be,” said Rounds.
Not only did the continuing resolution set up another fight over spending for November, it also punted the issue of funding for Ukraine. The measure did not offer any aid to Ukraine’s efforts in the war with Russia, although President Joe Biden, congressional Democrats, and most Senate Republicans have vowed that it remains a priority. But with the future of the House Republican conference up in the air, it’s not certain what this means for Ukraine aid. One of the contenders for speaker, Representative Jim Jordan, has expressed skepticism about approving additional funding for Ukraine.
“One-third of the time that we should be using to determine how to fund the government on a longer than six-week basis is going to be used to determine who the speaker is. So I am worried about the supplemental funding for Ukraine, the disaster supplemental, and then just basic government funding,” Senator Thom Tillis told me. “All of those things need to get baked pretty soon. We don’t need to be having this conversation five weeks from now.”
Given that Republicans still hold a four-seat majority in the House, Congress can’t accomplish anything without their input. And as long as the future of the GOP conference is uncertain, so is government funding. “We can move heaven and earth, but unless the House is able to function, it’s not going to work,” said Senator John Cornyn.
But other Senate Republicans were less concerned about the chaos in the House. Senator Cynthia Lummis, who was in the House when former Speaker John Boehner resigned amid opposition from conservative representatives, predicted that the situation would soon smooth over.
“People at the time said, ‘Oh, the Republicans can’t govern.’ We settled on Paul Ryan, he took the reins of leadership, and everything was fine,” Lummis said. “The Washington-centric kerfuffle that’s going on is going to be short-lived. The Republicans will get their act together, and they’ll settle on someone, and we’ll go forward, and this is not going to be a big deal.”
Senator John Kennedy said that the struggle in the House was representative of the politics of a deeply divided country. “Anger can be a positive emotion, so long as you don’t allow it to cloud your judgment,” Kennedy said. “What the House needs to do now is select a new leader and get back to the business of government.… And I think the House has already taken that step.”
Still, many Republicans in the upper chamber worry about how this situation reflects on the ability of a GOP-led House to be an effective majority. “We need to demonstrate that we can govern. And this is demonstrative of the current Republican majority’s shortcomings,” said Senator Todd Young.
For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argued in favor of changing the rules on the motion to vacate, so that one lawmaker—in this case, Gaetz—would not be able to threaten the position of the speaker.
“I have no advice to give to House Republicans, except one: I hope whoever the next speaker is gets rid of the motion to vacate. I think it makes the speaker’s job impossible,” McConnell said.