Republican senators are growing increasingly alarmed at Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) inability to pass spending legislation over the staunch opposition of a small group of conservative rebels, and fear a government shutdown may be days away.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who’s had to deal with the political fallout of government shutdowns in 1995-96, 2013 and 2018-19, warned Republican lawmakers on the other side of the Capitol on Tuesday that shutdowns are “a loser for Republicans, politically.”
McConnell made his comments after House Republican leaders canceled a key procedural vote on a stopgap funding measure that was scheduled for 2:30 pm Tuesday amid opposition from disgruntled conservatives.
The scrapped vote raised fresh concerns among Republican senators over whether McCarthy will be able to pass any bill to keep the government funded beyond Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“We’re waiting to see what the House is going to do on a continuing resolution. I think all of you know I’m not a fan of government shutdowns. I’ve seen a few of them over the years, they never have produced a policy change and they’ve always been a loser for Republicans, politically,” McConnell told reporters at the start of his weekly press conference.
Hours later, McCarthy suffered another major setback when a handful of House conservatives voted with Democrats to defeat a procedural measure to advance the Defense appropriations bill.
It is exceedingly rare for such a procedural vote to fail on the House floor, and to have it happen on a bill that usually enjoys strong GOP support has Republican senators even more concerned.
Some GOP senators and aides now fear a government shutdown is likely.
“This may be a situation where you’ve got to break glass to make sure that we can get some kind of a deal. I don’t know what that looks like,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said of emergency steps that may have to be taken to avoid a shutdown.
“I wouldn’t want to be Kevin McCarthy for love nor money. It’s hard. I get that he has a hard dynamic over there,” Murkowski added.
“I’m very worried about a shutdown,” she said.
One possible “break-the-glass” emergency step the Senate could take would be to move first on a continuing resolution to avoid a funding lapse Oct. 1.
The House usually moves first on spending and revenue bills, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is mulling his options in the face of the House stalemate.
“Our first job is to get the House to pass something. We’ll see if they can. We need a bipartisan bill in each body,” Schumer told reporters.
Earlier in the day, he criticized McCarthy for letting “chaos” reign.
“It doesn’t have to be the MAGA way or a shutdown. House Republicans have a choice in the matter, between pursuing real chances for bipartisanship and catering to the hard right. Each time, they have chosen to empower the hard right; they’ve chosen dysfunction and chaos,” he said.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his level of concern about a potential government shutdown is a “7.5” on a scale of 1 to 10 after House Republican leaders punted on the procedural vote to advance the government funding stopgap.
“I’m concerned,” he said.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) called the repeated setbacks McCarthy has encountered in trying to pass spending legislation “pretty crazy” and urged House conservatives to readjust their expectations for the end-of-year spending debate.
“I think the expectations of the far right in the House are unrealistic, as noble as they might be,” warned Cramer, who served in the House when a fight over ObamaCare shut down the government for 16 days in 2013. “And they won’t lead to more conservative outcomes if they don’t give the Speaker room to work.”
He said government shutdowns “always seem to” get blamed on Republicans.
Cramer said members of the House Freedom Caucus should feel good about the debt limit deal McCarthy negotiated with Biden in May to effectively cut nondefense discretionary spending programs and implement new work requirements for federal food assistance.
He said McCarthy will mostly likely have to rely on Democratic votes at some point to pass government funding legislation, something that the Speaker hasn’t wanted to do for fear of antagonizing conservatives in the GOP conference.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (R) last week threatened to offer a motion to oust McCarthy as Speaker if McCarthy didn’t back conservatives’ demands for steep funding cuts.
McCarthy tried to mollify House conservatives last week by giving them the green light to move forward on an impeachment inquiry into Biden and his family’s finances, but that still wasn’t enough to quell an internal Republican battle over a continuing resolution to keep federal departments and agencies operating past this month.
A Senate Republican aide said the “odds of a shutdown are very high.”
“They don’t have the votes for anything,” the aide said of the House GOP leader’s prospects of passing a funding bill.
Cramer said House conservatives shouldn’t expect major spending concessions from Democrats since they control the White House and Senate, while the Republicans have a slim five-seat majority in the lower chamber.
A Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss McCarthy’s battle with conservatives over funding legislation warned that it won’t end well for Republicans.
“I don’t know what the win is here for them,” the senator said of House conservatives. “At the end of the day, when you shut the government down, you have to open it back up. It’s a painful experience.”
Republican senators say even if members of the House Freedom Caucus force a shutdown, it’s unlikely to result in Democrats agreeing to any significant spending cuts to get government workers back to work.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the five-week partial government shutdown in 2019 wound up costing the U.S. economy $11 billion.
“When you have a Democratic Senate and a Democrat for president, I don’t know what they think they’re going to be able to accomplish,” the senator said. “Maybe it’s one of these things where it has to be experienced. The Speaker appears to be at the point of, ‘OK, if you guys want to do this.’ … I think he’s at wits’ end here.”
“It’s terrible. I’m really concerned,” the senator added.