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House Republicans are too busy fighting one another to fight Democrats on spending

Ahead of a likely government shutdown, the GOP is feuding not over negotiations with Democrats, but what to put into dead-on-arrival messaging bills.

UPDATE (Sept. 21, 2023, 1:15 p.m. ET): House Republicans on Thursday failed for a second time this week to bring a defense spending bill to the floor. The final vote was 212-216 with five Republicans again voting against.

I’ll say this for House Democrats: At least when they fight amongst themselves, it tends to be over the details of a certain policy or piece of legislation that could have a real impact on real Americans. That’s absolutely not the case when it comes to the unending string of tantrums, infighting and grandstanding on display from House Republicans this week. They have been squabbling with one another, and risking a government shutdown, over personal grievances and bills that have no chance of getting signed into law.

There is a little over a week left to avoid an Oct. 1 federal shutdown. Ideally, Congress would pass the 12 spending bills it needs to keep things running before then — but this Congress has not exactly been great at that most basic of its tasks. The House has passed just one of those bills; the Senate has moved all 12 out of committee on a bipartisan basis, but none has passed the full body yet.

Leaders in both chambers know that a short-term spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, is needed to keep the government running.

The House was supposed to pass another one of those bills, appropriating roughly $800 billion in defense funding, on Tuesday. But that proved impossible thanks to a renegade group of five conservatives who voted against the “special rule” that would bring the bill to the floor, which caused it to fail 212-214. It’s the second time this year a rule, which typically passes solely on votes from the majority party, has failed. The failed vote in June — which involved a bill about, of all things, safeguarding gas stoves — was the first time a rule had failed in two decades.

Both cases were in protest against a deal that Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had made the last time he was in this position: that is, backed into a corner, with far-right conservatives threatening his job and facing the likelihood that blame for a looming crisis would fall squarely on his shoulders. In managing to avoid a debt ceiling disaster, McCarthy and President Joe Biden agreed on a set of spending caps for the next two years. But members of the House Freedom Caucus have insisted that those caps were maximums, rather than the topline annual spending levels. Since then, the group's members have been pressuring McCarthy to go back on the deal and agree to even deeper cuts, down to pre-pandemic spending levels.

Leaders in both chambers know that a short-term spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, will be needed to keep the government running. One of the staunchest ultraconservatives, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, helped hammer out an intraparty deal with the House GOP's more moderate Main Street Caucus that would fund the government for an extra month in exchange for a roughly 8% cut in all nondefense or veteran-related spending in that time. You’d think that Roy, one of the most prominent members of the Freedom Caucus, would be able to convince enough of his fellow hard-liners to get onboard with this bill, right?

Wrong. Roughly a dozen — that is, more than twice the number who voted against the special rule — are opposed to the continuing resolution, even though it also includes other far-right priorities, like a border security bill that would restart the construction of former President Donald Trump’s border wall and make his “Remain in Mexico” policy into law. And McCarthy’s attempt to placate them with announcing an impeachment inquiry into Biden has also fallen flat.

The simplest solution would be for McCarthy to just scrape together enough votes from his party to offer up a clean continuing resolution, one that does nothing but keep funding the government at the current level, that Democrats could also support. There are plenty of vulnerable Republicans from swing districts who are currently very upset with the far-right bloc for its stunts and who’ve been venting their ire in public for the last week. As Rep. Mike Lawler, a New York Republican who won his seat in a district that that Biden carried in 2020, put it to reporters Tuesday: “These people can’t define a win. They don’t know how to take yes for an answer. It is a clown show.”

Even the usual theory that getting something — anything — over the line would give McCarthy leverage in showing that he can pass a bill on GOP votes only feels misguided here.

But even that strategy would require more political courage than McCarthy has displayed to date. Keeping the government open with Democratic votes would likely trigger the Chekov’s gun that’s been sitting on the House dais since he first won the speaker’s gavel: a motion to vacate the chair, aka a vote on whether to remove McCarthy from the speakership. He’s all but dared the likes of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., to "file the freaking motion" if they’re serious about it, but there’s no telling if that newfound bravado will hold up for long.

Look, it would be one thing if this were an unforeseen issue that fell on McCarthy’s lap, or if the bills that are being blocked were viable options to actually solve the problem at hand. But no, these are just messaging bills that are giving everyone an ulcer right now. The “compromise” resolution that McCarthy is struggling to pass is dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and even if it weren’t, it would be dead on arrival if it reached Biden’s desk. It wouldn’t even garner much support from Senate Republicans, who would rather pass a resolution that includes things such as disaster relief funding or additional military funding for Ukraine.

So even if he manages to get the votes on a continuing resolution by packing it full of conservative goodies, the Senate will amend it and send it back, leaving him holding the ball once again. Politico reported Tuesday that the GOP’s moderate faction is considering using a discharge petition to force a vote on a clean continuing resolution, skirting McCarthy’s leadership team in the process. But that feels like almost as much of a long shot as a bill passing before a shutdown.

This means that the House is busy tying itself in knots over what should be a facesaving measure. We haven’t even gotten to the actual negotiations that a divided government require. Even the usual theory that getting something — anything — over the line would give McCarthy leverage in showing that he can pass a bill on GOP votes only feels misguided here. The fractures in the GOP caucus will still be there once those talks take place, leaving the House in the same position it’s in now. Rather than taking on the White House or the Senate majority, Republicans are busy slaughtering themselves politically. Democrats aren’t even having to lift a finger.