McCarthy handed defeat as defense bill stalls, shutdown looms

By LISA MASCARO and STEPHEN GROVES

Associated Press

Published: 09-21-2023 7:44 PM

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s latest plan to prevent a looming federal shutdown by appeasing his hard-right flank quickly collapsed Thursday, a crushing defeat that makes a disruption in government services almost certain.

A government closure is increasingly likely as time runs out for Congress to act. McCarthy’s bid to move ahead with a traditionally popular defense funding bill as a first step toward keeping the government running was shattered by a core group of Republican colleagues when they refused to vote with the increasingly endangered speaker, whose job is on the line.

A test vote to advance the bill failed, 212-216, as a handful of Republicans joined with Democrats to stop it. It was the third time that McCarthy, R-Calif., has been stymied on the defense bill, an unheard of loss for a speaker. Once again the House came to a sudden standstill.

“This is a whole new concept of individuals who just want to burn the whole place down,” McCarthy said after the vote, acknowledging he was frustrated. “It doesn’t work.”

The open revolt was further evidence that McCarthy’s strategy of repeatedly giving in to the conservatives is seemingly only emboldening them. A handful of GOP lawmakers, urged on by Donald Trump, the party’s early front-runner for the 2024 presidential nomination, has run roughshod over their own House majority.

Trump urged the conservatives to hold the line against the higher funding levels McCarthy had agreed to with President Joe Biden earlier this year and to end the federal criminal indictments against him.

“This is also the last chance to defund these political prosecutions against me and other Patriots,” Trump wrote on social media. “They failed on the debt limit, but they must not fail now. Use the power of the purse and defend the Country!”

A federal shutdown looms Sept. 30, the end of the current budget year, if Congress cannot pass the bills needed to fund the government or approve a short-term measure to keep Washington running while negotiations continue.

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“We need the extreme MAGA Republicans to get their act together,” said House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, referring to Trump’s campaign slogan.

“End the civil war,” Jeffries urged the Republicans. “Get your act together.”

The White House and Democrats, along with some Republicans, warn that a shutdown would be devastating for people who rely on their government for everyday services and would undermine America’s standing in the world.

Moving forward with the defense bill was supposed to be a way for McCarthy to build goodwill among the GOP House majority as he tries to pass a more temporary bill just to keep the government open. That stopgap measure would fund government for another month, but was in serious doubt. It, too, had catered to other hard-right priorities to slash spending by 8% from many services, and bolster security at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Many on the right flank want to see progress on the 12 individual appropriations bills that would fund the various federal departments at the lower levels these lawmakers are demanding before they give their votes for any short-term measure. Many opposed the deal McCarthy struck with Biden this year over the spending levels and are trying to dismantle it now.

Then the test vote on the defense bill shattered McCarthy’s strategy.

He commands a narrow majority in the House, and Republicans appeared on track, in a tight roll call, to advancing the measure Thursday. Then the Democrats who had not yet voted began rushing into the chamber.

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and fellow Democrats yelled out to hold open the vote. She was a “no.” A few others came in behind her and tipped the tally toward defeat.

The Democrats oppose the military bill on many fronts, including the Republican provisions that would gut diversity programs at the Pentagon.

As passage appeared doomed, attention turned to the five Republican holdouts to switch their votes.

GOP leaders spent more than an hour on the floor trying to recruit one holdout, Rep. Dan Bishop. R-N.C., to vote “yes.”

Bishop told reporters afterward that he would have been willing to flip his vote in support but that he felt that previous evening’s long meeting, when McCarthy convened lawmakers for two hours in the Capitol basement, did not provide him the assurances he needed.

“Every time there’s the slightest relief of the pressure, the movement goes away from completing the work,” Bishop said.

When asked what it would take to gain his vote, Bishop said, “I think a schedule of appropriations bills over Kevin McCarthy signature would be meaningful to you to me.”

Others were dug in, including some who had supported advancing the defense bill just two days ago when it failed.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a chief opponent of more aid for Ukraine in the war against Russia, said she voted against the defense bill this time because her party’s leadership refused to separate out the war money. Her stand came as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was at the Capitol during a high-profile visit to Washington.

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