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Congress avoided a shutdown. What happens now?

Kevin McCarthy faced either a shutdown or a right-wing push to kick him out of his job. He chose the latter.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy points emphatically while speaking on September 30, 2023, in Washington, DC.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy teamed up with Democrats to keep the government open. Will he keep his job?
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

With only hours to spare, Congress on Saturday narrowly avoided a government shutdown. The Senate approved a bill to keep the government open for the next 45 days by a vote of 88 to 9 after a dramatic reversal by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy ensured an overwhelming House vote to keep the government open.

McCarthy had spent weeks trying to find a path that would both keep the government open and protect himself from an internal coup by hardliners within the House Republican conference. Ultimately, McCarthy opted to fund the government and challenge the hardliners to do their worst — opening him up to attempts to remove him from the House’s top job.

McCarthy had tried Friday to get his caucus to support a short-term measure — known as a continuing resolution — that was loaded up with major spending cuts to appeal to House right-wingers. But after that failed, the California Republican punted on Saturday after accepting that he could not pass any short-term funding measure with Republican votes alone.

Instead, he allowed the House to vote on legislation that would continue current government spending for the next 45 days, along with disaster aid. The only major provision desired by Democrats not included in the legislation is additional aid to Ukraine. The short-term bill passed with all but one Democrat supporting it. However, 90 Republicans were opposed.

Many of those Republicans were opposed to a continuing resolution on principle. They believed McCarthy had made a commitment to funding the government through 12 individual appropriations bills rather than a single legislative vehicle. As Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-TX) put it on Friday, “We got to break the fever. This is how business has been conducted for the past 33 years in this country, which coincidentally are close to $30 trillion in debt.” He added, “if we don’t break this right now, if you don’t do this right now, it’s gonna be business as usual next year, and the year after the year after.”

Will Kevin McCarthy stay the GOP speaker?

The challenge for McCarthy is whether he can survive his shift in tactics. Speaking to reporters after the vote, he offered a challenge to those dissidents: “If somebody wants to make a motion against me, bring it.”

McCarthy’s position has always been precarious. The California Republican was finally elected speaker after 15 ballots and had a four-seat majority in the House. If a motion to oust McCarthy were brought to the floor, it would require 218 votes to pass, and McCarthy could need support from Democrats to keep his job if more than a handful of Republicans vote against him.

Matt Gaetz, a longtime critic of McCarthy and one of the ringleaders of the effort to block him from becoming speaker in January, told reporters: “I’ve said that whether or not Kevin McCarthy faces a motion to vacate is entirely within his control because all he had to do was comply with the agreement that he made with us in January. Putting this bill on the floor and passing it for Democrats would be such an obvious, blatant, and clear violation of that. We would have to deal with it.”

But not all the skeptics of continuing resolutions in the conference were ready to strip McCarthy of the speaker’s gavel.

Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX), who was one of the 21 Republicans who voted against McCarthy on Friday, expressed sympathy for the speaker. He told reporters that McCarthy had the “most impossible job in the world and the United States.”

So what happens now?

A potential government shutdown will be averted for the next six weeks. That gives Republicans more time to try to advance the remaining appropriations bills through the House. But anything they pass will go to a Democratic-controlled Senate with very different priorities and without the same attachment to the traditional appropriations process possessed by doctrinaire House conservatives.

But it also means McCarthy will have to thread the same needle then. The question remains: Will he be able to keep the government open and also remain speaker? One longtime conservative critic, Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, expressed fundamental dissatisfaction with McCarthy’s leadership on Saturday morning to reporters. Describing the speaker’s approach, he said, “the bus is going 100 miles off the cliff with the Democrats, let’s slow it down to 95 and we get to drive the bus off the cliff.”

Earlier this week, Liam Donovan, a longtime Republican operative and Washington lobbyist, told me that the goal of Republican dissidents was to force a showdown and have McCarthy face a reckoning within his conference. After all, regardless of whether it happened without a shutdown or with one, McCarthy’s exit strategy was always to work with Democrats to pass legislation that would fund the government. It was simply a question of which parliamentary approach he would take and what the collateral damage would be. As of late Saturday night, the showdown had happened and the government would remain open. But, at least for a day, the reckoning would wait.

What happens next on additional funding for Ukraine?

There are still a number of other possibilities for Congress to provide additional funding to Ukraine, including through a supplemental appropriations request or by attaching it to future must-pass legislation, such as the next resolution to fund the government.

But this bill marks a key demarcation in the political debate over Ukraine on Capitol Hill. Coming only days after a majority of Republicans voted — for the first time — for an amendment to strip funding for Ukraine, it’s a clear indication that there is a growing sentiment on the right against further US aid to the Eastern European country. While McCarthy was willing to punt on almost every other issue in order to avoid a government shutdown, he still didn’t include additional funding for Ukraine in the continuing legislation.

Wait, but why am I hearing about a fire alarm?

While there were rhetorical fireworks among Republicans on Saturday, there was a literal fire alarm pulled by a Democrat. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) pulled an alarm in a House office building on Saturday. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Democrat said, “Congressman Bowman did not realize he would trigger a building alarm as he was rushing to make an urgent vote. The Congressman regrets any confusion.” Bowman later told reporters, “I thought the alarm would open the door.”

However, Republicans suggested that Bowman may have done so intentionally. The alarm was pulled at a time when Democrats were trying to delay a House vote in order to read the legislation introduced by Republicans and ensure they found it acceptable.

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) is already preparing legislation to expel the New York Democrat. Such a proposal would require significant Democratic support to reach the necessary two-thirds majority vote. Other possibilities for discipline, including a formal reprimand or censure, would only require simple majorities.

McCarthy condemned Bowman. “This should not go without punishment,” he said. The speaker added that he expected the House Ethics Committee to investigate and planned to speak with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) about Bowman’s behavior.