In the span of three hours, rank-and-file Republicans bucked House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, leaving both GOP leaders weakened Sunday heading into a critical legislative period.
First, after days of internal rebellion, McCarthy (R-Calif.) threw in the towel at a Saturday morning meeting. His leadership team had run the numbers, and at least six Republicans would oppose any plan to keep the government open by the midnight deadline.
With just four votes to spare on a GOP-only plan, McCarthy gave up and turned to Democrats to help pass a “clean” resolution to keep the government open at current levels into mid-November.
The only olive branch to staunch conservatives? No funding for Ukraine’s defense in the war against Russia.
Across the Capitol, McConnell had spent the month of September delivering floor speeches dedicated to the defense of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who visited the Capitol nine days earlier to rally support behind President Biden’s request for $24 billion in military and diplomatic support. He worked with Biden administration officials to pare back that request to $6 billion and ask for more funding later this year.
Government shutdown averted
End of carousel
So when the Senate GOP gathered at lunchtime Saturday for a roughly 90-minute meeting, McConnell delivered a pitch to rally support for the original plan — a funding plan that included $6 billion for Ukraine.
His caucus overruled him. They preferred McCarthy’s plan to keep the government open by ditching the debate over Ukraine money until later this year.
The diminished stature for the two leaders could have big consequences.
McCarthy, who lost support from more than 40 percent of his rank and file on the stopgap funding vote, opened himself to a challenge from hard-right members who want to oust him as speaker.
For McConnell, the longest-serving floor leader in Senate history, his iron hold over the GOP suffered a surprising blow and places future support for Ukraine in some doubt. That this occurred after the 81-year-old spent the past six months battling myriad health problems, stemming from a bad fall in March, only further heightened questions about his future.
In perhaps an unintentional slight, McCarthy told reporters he did not talk to McConnell to personally relay his decision to pursue a bipartisan plan with no money for Ukraine. Instead, the speaker dealt with Sens. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), who previously served 10 years in the House, and John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 GOP leader for the past five years.
But the House speaker faces a more immediate question about his long-term standing.
After months of trying to coddle his right-wing detractors, McCarthy finally had a brief “Bulworth” moment, sounding like the Warren Beatty character in the 1998 film who just starts speaking his mind without worrying about the consequences.
“There has to be an adult in the room,” the speaker said. He suggested that the group of 15 to 20 GOP holdouts who regularly sabotaged Republican-backed votes act like political children.
“It’s all right that Republicans and Democrats joined to do what is right. If someone wants to make a motion [to remove me as speaker], bring it,” he told reporters at a news conference after the 335-91 vote.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), the anti-McCarthy renegade, could bring such a motion on Monday when the House reconvenes for legislative business. It would force a vote on a “motion to vacate” within two days of filing it.
If more than four Republicans vote to remove McCarthy, his entire fate would rest in the hands of Democrats, who traditionally would not give any support to the other party’s speaker. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has declined to answer hypotheticals about such a vote.
If Democrats decide to save McCarthy, they would probably seek some concessions — and the more the speaker concedes, the more Republicans will be agitated to toss him aside. McCarthy’s allies insist that Gaetz is a gadfly with no following, that the speaker will survive a vote to oust him. And that this process will make him stronger in the long run.
“If he wants to do a motion to vacate, let him do it. Kevin McCarthy is gonna be speaker as long as Kevin wants to be speaker,” Mullin said.
A close McCarthy confidant, Mullin spent the week shuttling back and forth across the Capitol, interpreting for the House and Senate GOP what the other was thinking. His Senate colleagues frequently ask about Gaetz.
“I tell people all the time, ‘Matt is not about policy, has nothing to do with principle. All Matt Gaetz wants is just attention,’” Mullin said.
But McCarthy spent the entire summer and early fall acting like a leader very concerned about losing support on his far-right flank. He reneged on a budget-and-debt deal that he cinched with President Biden in May and ordered his lieutenants to cut more than $100 billion from the spending outline to meet conservative demands.
This guaranteed he had to pass those agency spending bills with only Republican votes, rather than the usual bipartisan approach past speakers have taken to government funding. When Republicans narrowly passed three spending bills Thursday, they celebrated on the House floor as if they’d won the World Series — high-fives and hugs and fist bumps everywhere.
Each previous attempt to appease the right came with the vote to expel the speaker looming in the backdrop — if we don’t give in on this demand, maybe they’ll try to oust McCarthy.
So when the House GOP gathered in the Capitol basement Saturday, few expected McCarthy to take the only path to keeping government open — gathering Democratic votes — because it could provoke a challenge to his gavel.
McCarthy knew he had no other choice than to ditch the hard right.
“The only answer is shut down and not pay our troops? I don’t wanna be a part of that team,” he said. “I want to be a part of a conservative group that wants to get things done.”
No speaker has ever been ejected midterm in this manner. If it happens, the House will basically come to a halt until lawmakers elect a speaker.
While McCarthy’s standing has been wobbly all year, McConnell has maintained staunch backing despite his health troubles.
It made his support for Ukrainian aid seem certain to be included. Allies of the GOP leader blamed White House officials Saturday for not being more forceful in keeping House Democrats away from the “clean” government funding plan. Once it became clear the House would approve that bill, the die was cast.
By late Saturday, before an 88-9 vote in the Senate, McConnell remained defiant that Congress has to approve a robust funding package for Ukraine. But he acknowledged that, as political support in Congress has wavered, the worse outcome for Zelensky would have been a federal shutdown that served as a proxy battle over the fight against Russia.
“I’m confident the Senate will pass further urgent assistance to Ukraine later this year,” he said in his floor speech. “But let’s be clear. The alternative to our action today — an entirely avoidable government shutdown — would not just pause our progress on these important priorities, it would actually set them back.”
Two of McConnell’s biggest foes, Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.), wore smiles after the vote. They have clamored for a more deliberate process to consider government spending plans, arguing for an open process. Both said they welcome a debate on Ukraine as a stand-alone issue, not tacked onto an up-or-down vote to keep the government open.
Johnson called Saturday “small progress” but acknowledged it was probably his first win against leadership on such a spending plan.
“We’re making some progress, which we haven’t made — I haven’t made in 12 years here,” he said.
Thune and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 leader, both worked to support the McCarthy plan — an unusual moment for two aspirants to McConnell’s job who are among his most loyal backers.
Afterward, Thune remained committed to funding Ukraine. “This is an issue that we have to deal with. And we will,” he said.
When the Senate GOP broke up their Saturday meeting, a group of senators walked toward reporters to explain the new decision. But McConnell kept on walking through the doors into the Senate chamber and started down the aisle.
Thune yelled “leader, leader,” before McConnell stopped and realized he was all alone.
McConnell turned around and joined his Republican colleagues to announce the reversal on Ukraine.