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McCarthy's plans for impeachment don't appear to be tamping down shutdown threat

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, is working to convince members of his own party to support a stop-gap spending bill while also defending his job as Speaker.
Anna Moneymaker
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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, is working to convince members of his own party to support a stop-gap spending bill while also defending his job as Speaker.

Updated September 13, 2023 at 3:22 PM ET

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy launched an impeachment inquiry this week to show those on the far right of his conference he was listening. He also calculated it could help fund the government and avoid a shutdown at the end of the month.

It doesn't look like that's working.

Hours after his Tuesday announcement, members of the House Freedom Caucus insisted that the impeachment inquiry isn't changing their calculations on spending.

"Those are two separate conversations and two separate actions by Congress," said Tennessee Rep. Andy Ogles, a Freedom Caucus member. "There is no leverage with an impeachment process. And if anyone tries to use that to leverage votes for a CR [a short-term spending bill known as a continuing resolution], there will be hell to pay."

Ogles and the rest of the Freedom Caucus represent the threat that has loomed over McCarthy, R-Calif., for months: agree to demands from the far right, or lose his job as speaker.

On Wednesday morning McCarthy presented a plan to his members behind closed doors. Under that plan, they would continue passing individual spending bills to present a united GOP front to respond to the bipartisan bills coming out of the Senate. But off the 12 annual appropriations bills, the House, so far, has passed just one. McCarthy told House Republicans the chamber would need to pass a CR to prevent a shutdown on Oct. 1.

House leaders planned to move ahead with the spending process on Wednesday by holding votes on funding for the Department of Defense. But by midday, the plan was starting to crumble.

Fasten your seatbelts, because it's going to be a s*** show.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said it's a sign lawmakers could be careening toward a shutdown.

"Fasten your seatbelts, because it's going to be a s*** show," Simpson told reporters. "If you can't pass defense, you can't pass any of them."

Members of the Freedom Caucus are calling for overall spending to return to fiscal year 2022 levels, as they pushed for when McCarthy was elected speaker. Those levels are lower than what McCarthy and President Biden agreed to during debt ceiling negotiations this spring.

They also say they will oppose any stopgap bill that does not include additional border security funding, changes to Pentagon policies and measures to address alleged political bias in the Justice Department.

Freedom Caucus member Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., said he will oppose moving forward with any of the 12 appropriations bills until he has seen topline spending numbers "that are satisfactory" for all of them.

With a razor-thin majority, McCarthy can't afford to lose fiscal conservatives, unless he courts Democratic votes — a move that would further enrage the group already threatening his job.

Freedom Caucus member Rep. Andrew Clyde said Tuesday passing a CR without conservative concessions would "endanger Speaker McCarthy's leadership."

Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz took to the floor Tuesday to warn that McCarthy was "out of compliance" with the deal he cut in January to be elected speaker. Gaetz cited votes on all 12 spending bills as one of the items McCarthy hasn't delivered on. But it was conservatives who forced the speaker to table one of those bills in July, when their demands made it clear leaders didn't have the votes to pass the bill.

Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., a member of the Freedom Caucus, told reporters he wants the speaker to outline in writing how the spending puzzle fits together. He said the House can stay in session for the rest of the month and pass bills one-by-one at the levels conservatives want.

Good said the debate could go past the Sept. 30 deadline into October when federal agencies run out of money.

"There's not going to be much impact from that if we do that," he said.

House Rules Committee Chair Rep. Tom Cole disagreed that there wouldn't be any impact from a shutdown, saying "it is a big deal and the American people will notice, and the problem is if you stumble into it whatever reason triggered it won't be what you're talking about, you'll be talking about the shutdown."

McCarthy's own allies admitted it was unclear how they would avoid a shutdown, but made the case it was important to get incremental wins now — some spending bills passed out of the House.

Arkansas GOP Rep. Steve Womack noted that "the margins are thin" with several House Republicans out this week, including Majority Leader Steve Scalise, who is undergoing cancer treatment. That added to what he called a "difficult spot" to keep all GOP lawmakers together.

Womack said moving some bills through the House "also sends a signal to the Senate that we're serious about what we're doing and we have some solutions that they need to listen to."

He said "nonverbal" communication from conservatives in the meeting indicated they weren't sold and said "remember, it doesn't take many."

Rep. Patrick McHenry, a close ally of McCarthy who was a key negotiator during debt ceiling talks, was more optimistic about the chance that Republicans could get on the same page.

Shutting down the government is the political equivalent of putting a gun to your head and saying 'do what I say or I'll shoot' — you hurt yourself, you're not going to advance your objective.

"At the end of the day ... the only thing that is going to be enacted into law is what we negotiated as a direct result of a debt ceiling increase," McHenry told reporters. "We negotiated tough caps that we have to adhere to. And if [some senators] want to spend over and House Republicans want to spend less than the caps, well, then where do we end up? The caps. I think that's a reasonable outcome of this thing."

The speaker pitched combining three bills that fund security-related programs — Defense, Military Construction and VA and Homeland Security – with emergency money for disaster aid for the recent fires and storms that have wreaked havoc in states across the country.

The House is scheduled to be in session just another 11 days before the end of the fiscal year. There's little evidence that McCarthy's strategy of trying to put out fires day-by-day to try to get his members on the same page will avoid a shutdown.

"Shutting down the government is the political equivalent of putting a gun to your head and saying 'do what I say or I'll shoot' — you hurt yourself, you're not going to advance your objective," Cole warned.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.