The Senate appears to be uniting against right-wing House extremists, subjecting Speaker Kevin McCarthy to possibly the biggest test to his leadership to date: averting a government shutdown while responding to this year’s catastrophic natural disasters and maintaining assistance to Ukraine. The two top Senate appropriators have an agreement on a spending bill that will come to the floor next week, and Republican leader Mitch McConnell has been using his bully pulpit to keep aid flowing to Ukraine.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who together lead the Appropriations Committee, announced Wednesday that they have reached a deal on a spending package that will include funding for Military Construction and Veterans Affairs; Transportation; Housing and Urban Development; Agriculture, Rural Development, and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as agencies under those larger umbrellas.
That could be the first of a handful of “minibus” bills the Senate pushes in the next few weeks, Sen. Jon Tester told Politico on Tuesday. If the Senate shows a united front on passing these funding bills, it would significantly increase pressure on McCarthy to pass a stopgap funding bill and avoid a government shutdown. That’s not a sure thing: The Senate is famously slow when it comes to legislating. To get these bills considered quickly, they’ll have to be advanced by unanimous consent. That avoids the lengthy process of cloture votes and hours of debate time. Any single senator—like the infamously obstructionist Republican Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, for example—could derail that with a simple objection.
So far, however, there hasn’t been much in the way of government-shutdown cheerleading from the usual subjects in the Republican Senate conference. In fact, as Murray and Collins noted in their announcement that “we worked with our colleagues in a bipartisan way to draft and pass out of Committee all twelve appropriations bills for the first time in years—and did so with overwhelming bipartisan votes.” There appears to be little appetite among Senate Republicans for picking this particular fight.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is intent on keeping the conference united on this one. Last week, he reiterated that the Republicans in the Senate were not going to emulate the House and renege on the budget deal that McCarthy struck with President Joe Biden earlier this year to resolve the debt-ceiling standoff. “The House then turned around and passed spending levels that were below that level,” McConnell said. “Without stating an opinion about that, that’s not going to be replicated in the Senate.”
McConnell has also set down a marker on continuing funding for Ukraine, another factor in a potential deal to avert a shutdown. The administration’s request for supplemental funding to Ukraine will likely be attached to a short-term funding bill, as would its request for emergency disaster relief. Funding for disaster relief should be a no-brainer for Republicans politically, as well as a top priority. Tying it to Ukraine assistance and keeping the government open should keep a healthy majority on board.
McConnell is doing his bit to keep up the drum beat. He has spent the last two days hammering on the need to keep funding flowing to Ukraine. “It is certainly not the time to go wobbly,” he said in a floor speech Wednesday. “It is not the time to ease up.”
The stakes are high for McConnell. He wants Republicans to regain the majority in 2024, and avoiding a government shutdown is vital to that goal. He’s walking the usual tightrope between keeping the increasingly MAGA-like base happy, while not giving Democrats any additional fodder to hammer Republican opponents.
That’s nothing compared with what McCarthy faces, however. For him, the outcome is more politically existential: whether he keeps his speakership. He’s getting pressure from his supposed ally Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who won’t vote for any government funding, or support for Ukraine, or really anything until she gets an impeachment inquiry, as she recently detailed in a long, unhinged tweet thread.
McCarthy’s more vocal adversaries are taking direct aim at his speakership. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz threatened a challenge in a tweet Tuesday, writing, “We’ve got to seize the initiative. That means forcing votes on impeachment. And if @SpeakerMcCarthy stands in our way, he may not have the job long. Let’s hope he works with us, not against us.”
Texas Rep. Chip Roy, a Freedom Caucus leader, has piled on with a series of tweets, retweets, and replies firing up the MAGA base for a shutdown. That includes retweeting a post exclaiming, “Chip for Speaker!!!”
That’s a direct message to McCarthy that either of them—or anyone else in the extremist bunch—would be willing to use the tool they extorted from him in his leadership bid in January: the motion to vacate the chair. That allows any single one of them to bring the equivalent of a no-confidence vote to the floor at any time. It’s not the first time Roy has made this veiled threat.
This is the biggest test for McCarthy’s ability to lead, one that everyone paying attention knew would happen if he didn’t stand up to the extremists at some point. He scraped by in the first test on the debt ceiling by striking a deal with Biden—the deal which the extremists forced him to renege on. He’s facing a choice again: Will he stick with the Trump MAGA minority, or try to protect his slim majority—particularly the “Biden 18,” the freshmen Republicans holding districts Biden won in 2020?
It’s also, of course, a test for those supposed moderates, one they’ve failed before. They have the power to block the minority of extremists, if they’re willing to use it.
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