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Kevin McCarthy has a roadmap to survive as speaker

In putting forward a short-term funding bill that Democrats could support, McCarthy took the most obvious path to success.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., owes me financial compensation for the amount of whiplash he put me through this weekend. After 16 years in Washington, almost all of which have been spent in House leadership, he should have known good and well that, given the intransigence of his caucus’s far-right flank, the only real solution to avoid a government shutdown was to put up a bill that Democrats could support. That he finally did so at the risk of his speakership is more than I expected of him — and it previewed a possible shift in McCarthy’s approach to his particular dilemma.

For weeks now, as a shutdown grew more and more likely, the only strategy that McCarthy had pursued was to pass long-term funding bills with exclusively Republican support. With a narrow majority and a slew of members in open revolt, the drafts that came to the floor were packed with deep cuts to federal spending and policy riders to appease the far-right flank of his caucus. This strategy was meant to show a unified Republican front when the time came to negotiate with President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Senate on final versions of the bills.

For weeks now, as a shutdown grew more and more likely, the only strategy that McCarthy had pursued was to pass long-term funding bills with exclusively Republican support.

That was the idea (in theory, anyway), but that theory was based on a fundamentally flawed assumption: that McCarthy’s future success hinged on a negotiation in which these bills passed the House with only Republican support; in which Democrats conceded to all the provisions that brought the conservative Republicans on board; in which Senate Democrats held their nose and voted to fund the government at deeply reduced levels; and in which Biden didn’t use his veto. In other words, a total victory for McCarthy and the far right.

I can’t overemphasize how much of a pipe dream McCarthy’s original sad excuse of a plan was, even before this weekend. It’s true that the House has passed more long-term spending bills than the Senate (four as of Monday afternoon to the Senate’s none), but it’s a hollow victory. The Senate Appropriations Committee has already passed all 12 spending bills, with major bipartisan majorities for each of them, but their passage in the full Senate was delayed while scrambling senators focused on a stopgap bill. Meanwhile, several of the House’s spending bills initially failed to garner the full support of McCarthy’s own party, until he made them even more toxic to Democrats and more appealing to his far-right members.

The House then failed to pass a continuing resolution Friday, even with deep cuts to spending and with an extreme border security bill attached. That short-term spending bill, which would have funded the government for an extra month at sharply reduced levels, went down in flames with 21 Republicans voting against it. It was that failure that caused McCarthy to shift gears. The bill that would eventually pass, which keeps spending at current levels for the next 45 days and includes additional disaster relief but no new funding for aid to Ukraine, was filed Friday night. It was only in a GOP conference meeting Saturday morning, after lining up moderates to speak in support of a stopgap measure, that McCarthy revealed his play.

Democrats were skeptical at the last-minute shift, and rightly so, given that McCarthy had squandered any good faith by reneging on his earlier deal with Biden on spending levels. But in the end, the bill passed overwhelmingly — 335-91 — with 90 Republicans, or about 40% of those voting, opting to reject it, and all Democrats but one supporting it. In effect, the result was the same as if McCarthy had just gotten out of the way of Democrats governing in the first place.

This pivot, however, puts his entire long-term strategy on spending fully into question. How many of the provisions McCarthy crammed into funding bills will need to be stripped out again in order for those bills to become law? How many Democratic votes is he going to need to pass whatever compromise the two chambers work out in any future conference committee? What will McCarthy do when the White House — which had been more than willing to let him twist in the wind — won’t budge, because he already made a deal with Biden on spending levels? And crucially, how is he going to face the ire of his caucus when the Democrats don’t automatically cave to their whims?

This pivot, however, puts his entire long-term strategy on spending fully into question.

That last part is especially important to McCarthy, as Republicans aligned with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., were already shopping around for a new speaker. Since he won the gavel in January after 15 rounds of voting, McCarthy has had hanging over his head the far right’s threat of a motion to vacate the chair, which would effectively oust him. He acknowledged this threat Saturday when speaking after the vote: “If somebody wants to make a motion against me, bring it. There has to be an adult in the room.”

If a coup attempt is coming no matter what McCarthy does — and it sounds like Gaetz intends to launch one soon — that undercuts its purported goal: to pressure him against cutting another deal with Democrats. And McCarthy must realize that while Democrats aren’t going to save him from a motion to vacate without getting something in return, enough of their votes will keep him from getting yeeted from power. I’m not the kind of person who automatically assumes that “bipartisan deals” are synonymous with “the best possible outcome.” But if McCarthy really has learned something from this latest self-made crisis and starts working with the moderates in his party to find compromises more in line with the Senate’s draft bills, he may have a slim chance of surviving.

As it stands, the forces that have been threatening to tear McCarthy down since last fall, when the midterms failed to give him a workable majority, appear to have finally caught up with him. Without the full backing of his caucus, the most powerful tool that McCarthy retains is the ability to act as a glorified traffic cop, deciding what comes to the floor and when. If that’s the case, McCarthy himself must decide whether his time leading the House of Representatives will come to a dishonorable end, buried alive by the far right. Or if instead, he has the backbone to stand by what he said Saturday — “That it’s all right if Republicans and Democrats joined together to do what is right” — and work toward solutions, rather than causing more problems.