WASHINGTON — The prospect of a government shutdown escalated significantly Tuesday as House Republicans’ intraparty tensions again came to a head in a dramatic floor vote amid negotiations on a nascent plan to keep the government open.
House Republicans’ inability to find agreement on even a stopgap funding bill that is destined to fail in the Senate again puts into focus the challenge before House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as he tries to unite his party and avoid a government shutdown. Though Republicans largely agree on the need to significantly curb federal spending, divisions mostly over process have given any five lawmakers enormous power in the razor-thin majority.
But as hard-liners dug in on their opposition, their more moderate counterparts began to firm up contingency plans for a bipartisan effort to keep the government open, publicly condemning their colleagues’ obstinance.
Some Republicans are seriously considering getting behind a shell bill that could, as soon as next week, serve as the vehicle that allows moderates to supersede McCarthy’s control of the House floor and force a vote to keep the government open, according to three people familiar with the plan who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline preliminary and private conversations. What exactly gets included in such a discharge petition remains unknown, but those familiar with the planning said it would include a short-term funding plan to avert a shutdown that could garner enough support from House Democrats and the Senate.
Such a move would keep McCarthy’s fingerprints off whatever bill is ultimately voted on in the House. But it would undoubtedly irritate colleagues who have said that passing any bill with Democratic votes would immediately trigger a motion to remove McCarthy from the speakership.
Lawmakers familiar with several possible pathways to avert a shutdown — including another deal that could be struck between the Republican Governance Group and New Democrat Coalition — say that any compromise with Democrats would be a last-case scenario for Republicans, who desperately want to see their conference agree on a stopgap bill that could move them into negotiations with the Senate and salvage some of their policy demands on border security.
But that pathway stalled Tuesday when GOP leadership pulled consideration of a noncontroversial procedural vote that would have been a key step toward passing a proposed stopgap funding measure out of the House. At least a dozen hard-right lawmakers — angry over what they say is a lack of information on top-line budget numbers and assurances that the Senate will adhere to their fiscal demands — have stymied efforts to pass the 30-day funding bill.
A number of lawmakers across the ideological spectrum spent most of Tuesday huddling across the office suite of Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) trying to find a path forward. Notably missing was McCarthy, who has allowed lawmakers to take the lead on cobbling up a proposal that can pass.
“It’s not one way or the highway,” McCarthy said at a news conference Tuesday. “It may not look perfect to you, maybe you want one person to decide everything, I don’t think that’s the way government should work. I like a lot of ideas to come up and have the best idea win.”
Early in the meeting in Emmer’s office, Rep. Kevin Hern (Okla.), who chairs the largest ideological grouping of House conservatives, proposed amending the deal by lowering the top-line number for all 12 appropriation bills to over $1.4 trillion, cutting the number originally agreed to by House Freedom Caucus and Main Street Caucus negotiators in a deal hashed out over the weekend.
Rep. Ralph Norman (S.C.), one of the hard-right lawmakers against all current funding options, said that a significant number of the roughly 20 holdouts would flip if Hern’s amendment was adopted. But several people familiar with the whip count said that it likely wouldn’t be enough to ensure the stopgap bill’s passage.
Norman added that a “top-line number first, then a schedule on the 12 appropriations” would signify a “done deal” for all holdouts to flip, including ending their block on considering full-year appropriation bills.
But some moderate lawmakers, particularly those who represent districts President Biden won in 2020, stressed that they have no incentive to grant hard-right lawmakers’ request to cut spending further, arguing they have continually moved the goal posts and made demands after the House Appropriations Committee spent months drafting 12 bills under the roughly $1.6 trillion agreed to by McCarthy and President Biden to raise the debt ceiling earlier this year.
“Why take those votes if they’re not even willing to support a defense appropriations bill? It goes right back to, this is the easy one,” said Rep. David G. Valadao (R-Calif.), who is on the Appropriations Committee. “If they can’t support our military - men and women, people in uniform, making sure that we’re a secure nation - there’s no point in voting any more pieces of legislation out of committee because they’re not willing to support the tough ones.”
In another reflection of the quagmire within the Republican conference, the House on Tuesday failed - just as it had last week - to pass a procedural vote that would have advanced a bill to fund the Defense Department for a full year, a measure usually passed without controversy. The procedure failed on a 214-212 vote, with five Republicans joining Democrats to vote against it. The House also had adjourned early for their August recess after failing to strike a policy agreement on the typically noncontroversial Agriculture funding bill.
The scene, once unthinkable, has become routine in McCarthy’s tenure: a House majority incapable of passing the parliamentary rules for debating legislation. In May, the speaker fell short of corralling the votes for the rule setting up the debt ceiling legislation. Democrats then, at the urging of House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), swooped in and provided a couple dozen votes to pass it.
That scene was remarkable to veteran lawmakers who have never seen the minority party provide the votes to pass the rule vote, and it greatly irked the far-right wing of the conference, who have since pledged to oust McCarthy if he leans on Democrats again. That perspective has forced Republicans to only pass bills through their narrow ranks.
Five GOP rebels forced Tuesday’s rule - largely backed by the majority of the conference - to fail, causing many Republicans to express the hypocrisy by their colleagues who want to pass all 12 appropriation bills but are preventing that from happening on the floor.
“We just witnessed a conservative Republican Party, frankly look and behave like the minority instead of the majority,” said Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.), a former naval aviator. “What we just saw were five individuals vote against the rule to bring to the floor, for a vote, the most conservative DOD bill in modern history.”
When it became clear the GOP lacked the votes to pass the rule, senior lawmakers walked to the center aisle where Reps. Norman, Ken Buck (Colo.), Dan Bishop (N.C.), and Matthew M. Rosendale (Mon.) were holding court, pleading with them to change their votes.
Rep. Ken Calvert (Calif.), chair of the defense appropriations subcommittee, huddled with Norman. Garcia, who represents a swing district with thousands of jobs tied to the military, also joined the animated conversation.
Finally, Rep. Victoria Spartz (Ind.) switched her vote to yes, deadlocking the vote at 213-213, giving GOP leaders hope they could flip one more vote and win. Finally, Rep. Morgan H. Griffith (Va.) turned to Buck and told him that he was accidentally listed as voting yes.
“I handed my card to somebody to vote for me and I said, ‘No.’ And then Morgan said to me, ‘it’s 213-213 and you said no.’” Buck said after the vote. “And I looked up and the vote was yes. So I changed my vote. It just seemed like it all came to a head on the floor.”
That settled the vote at 214-212. A moment later, McCarthy waved his hands to gavel the vote shut in defeat.
After the failed vote, several frustrated Republicans railed against the five GOP lawmakers who had voted against advancing the Defense Department funding bill. Republican veterans, who first warned their colleagues to support funding for the Pentagon, blasted the five lawmakers and charged them for voting in support of China instead of upholding American ideals around the world.
“The Republican conference of this Congress did not vote this down,” said Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.). “Five members of our conference did, and they should be held accountable.”
Lawmakers continued to walk in and out of Emmer’s office Tuesday evening, still projecting optimism that they will be able to cobble up a deal that funds the government for the short term. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), one of the negotiators who brokered the original shot-term deal, described the ongoing meeting as full of emotions.
“There’s yelling, there’s screaming, there’s crying, there’s venting,” he said. “We’re better now than we were two hours ago.”
Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) lamented the time that he said was being wasted over a proposal that the Senate is almost certain to dramatically change. He said Freedom Caucus members and other hard-right holdouts were focusing too much on the initial part of the budget negotiations and blocking their own goals to fund the government, which remains the most basic priority for the House as enshrined in the Constitution.
“You can’t claim victory on something that has no chance of becoming law. I have likened it to one wetting oneself in a dark suit. You get a warm feeling, but nobody notices,” Womack said. “We will be judged on how we vote on the last vote, not on the first one.”
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Alexandra Heal and Mariana Alfaro contributed to this report.