Politics / October 1, 2023

Congress Hits the Snooze Button to Stop Shutdown—for 45 Days

Democrats temporarily bailed out flailing GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, but underlying chaos remains.

Jeet Heer

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, speaks to reporters at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., on September 30, 2023.

(Tierney L Cross / Sipa USA via AP Images)

With only hours to spare on Saturday, the Senate passed a continuing resolution bill that had cleared the House of Representatives earlier in the day, thus ensuring that there would be no government shutdown, at least until November 17. The stopgap measure should be welcomed. A government shutdown would undermine the functioning of the nation, and it was also a reasonably good deal for Democrats. Under the bill, funding, aside from money supporting Ukraine’s war effort, would continue at the level of the previous year. As Politico notes, “The short-term funding patch that passed includes none of the GOP’s spending cuts or border policies. The only addition: $16 billion for disaster aid sought by the White House.” Even on Ukraine, the Democrats secured an agreement from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy that he’d bring another vote for Ukraine funding that would get an up-or-down vote. In other words, the Democrats got everything they wanted in terms of funding priorities (although not the passage of a full budget for another year, which would have been ideal). This explains why all but one Democrat rallied to the continuing resolution. In the House, the stopgap bill passed 335 to 91. Of the 91 who voted against the bill, only one was a Democrat: Mike Quigley of Illinois, who was motivated by concern for Ukraine. In the Senate, the bill passed by 88-9. All nine Senators who voted against the bill were Republicans.

Given the breakdown of the votes, it’s clear that the Democrats rescued the flailing leadership of the House speaker. McCarthy’s own caucus is divided between normal right-wingers and the extremist Freedom Caucus. Because of his control of the House rests on narrow margin of 10 seats, McCarthy is easily held hostage by the most extreme members of his caucus unless he’s willing to turn to Democrats for help.

In this case, it looks like the regular conservative Republicans were fed up with the aggressive agenda of the Freedom Caucus. Speaking to Politico, Republican Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska said, “There was an outcry from rank-and-file that want a [continuing resolution]. We’re tired of fucking around with these whack jobs.” Conversely Matt Gaetz, one of those Freedom Caucus “whack jobs” felt betrayed by McCarthy. He tweeted out that McCarthy “made a side Ukraine deal with Democrats and didn’t tell House Republicans until after his Continuing Resolution passed. More deceit.”

The Freedom Caucus holdouts are a group of only 10 members of Congress. As The Washington Post noted before the stopgap deal, “Combined, these hard-right holdouts represent about 2 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for 100 percent of the votes halting plans of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to keep the government open. Variations of the group have thwarted McCarthy at every turn during the months-long fiscal fights, turning their distaste for how the House functions and McCarthy’s leadership into a multimedia sideshow of bullhorns, pithy tweets, declarations on the House floor and live streams from the gym.”

This dysfunctional relationship between the Freedom Caucus and McCarthy’s leadership was what brought the United States to the brink of a shutdown. There’s no indication that the stopgap will improve unity within the GOP or give McCarthy any more skill in disciplining his strife-torn caucus.

In a statement on Saturday night, Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman, a Democrat, wrote:

I voted at 8:30pm on a Saturday night, that’s my job. But the American people should never have to worry about their government shutting down.

Pushing the snooze button solves nothing, because these same losers will try to pull the same shit in 45 days.

I voted yes tonight to keep the government open, but I’m done normalizing this dysfunction.

This is not entertainment, it’s governance. We must not allow the Freedom Caucus to turn our government into The Steve Wilkos Show.

For those not up on daytime television, Steve Wilkos runs a talk show in the tradition of his former mentor Jerry Springer, featuring maximum yelling and near-fisticuffs.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo made a similar point in less colorful language:

This continues to be a maddening and indefensible way of governing. Damage has already been done to government departments and agencies forced to prepare for a shutdown, costing enormous time, resources, and money. Government workers have been needlessly traumatized by the prospect of extended furloughs. Time that could been spent actually negotiating longer-term agreements on funding and policy has been wasted with legislative hostage-taking.

The stopgap bill is, as Fetterman says, pushing the snooze button while not solving the real problem. The trouble is that the GOP remains beholden to its most extreme voices. The only real solution to this mess isn’t another bill but voting the Republicans out of power at all levels of national government in 2024.

Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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