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Kevin McCarthy can't count on Mitch McConnell's help

Between a threatened impeachment inquiry and looming government shutdown, House and Senate Republicans are miles apart.

Like millions of Americans, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., probably wishes he were still on summer vacation. Now that the House is back from its August recess, the speaker’s first order of business is keeping the government from shutting down when the fiscal year ends on Oct. 1. Also on the agenda are a few other critical pieces of legislation that need to be on President Joe Biden’s desk by the end of the month.

But McCarthy is facing pressure from his right flank that will make it difficult to get anything done before that deadline. While it’s conceivable that he could make a deal that satisfies both his caucus and the Democrat-controlled Senate, he’ll have almost no margin of error before the far-right pounces — and he’ll have to balance those interests without much, if any, support from Senate Republicans.

McCarthy will have almost no margin of error before the far-right pounces

McCarthy and Biden signed off on an agreement in June that would raise the debt ceiling while capping spending for the next two years. Appropriations bills under that framework were supposed to start being passed in the House this summer. But then the ground shifted under McCarthy’s feet, as members of the House Freedom Caucus began insisting that the caps in the debt ceiling deal were a ceiling and that further cuts would be needed to secure their support on the actual appropriations bills. So far, only one bill has gotten through committee, leaving the rest to be worked through before October.

The White House has asked for Congress to pass a continuing resolution to keep things running past Sept. 30, along with $40 billion in emergency spending for aid to Ukraine, for disaster relief and to address several southern border issues. McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have both said they’re in favor of passing a stopgap bill while appropriators finish their work. But the Freedom Caucus has already said its members won’t support such a bill without a bunch of concessions on entirely unrelated matters.

That is the exact opposite of the vibe in the Senate, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made clear that he and his fellow Republicans intend to stick to the previous terms of the deal. “The speaker and the president reached an agreement which I supported in connection with raising the debt ceiling to set spending levels for next year,” McConnell said last week. “The House then turned around and passed spending levels that were below that level. Without stating an opinion about that, that’s not going to be replicated in the Senate.”

I’ve spent a lot of time ragging on the Senate over the years, but I gotta say that when it comes to this year’s appropriations bills, the Senate is cruising along in a way I didn’t expect. The Senate Appropriations Committee not only passed all 12 spending bills, it passed all 12 with overwhelmingly bipartisan votes, something that feels as rare as hen’s teeth these days. (Also, it’s worth noting that McConnell himself sits on the committee and voted all 12 bills.) The plan is to start moving those across the Senate floor for passage in the next week or so, leaving the House in the metaphorical dust.

Looming over all that is the specter of impeachment. I wrote last month that the GOP’s impeachment fever seemed to be breaking. I was half-right. Yes, there’s a growing acknowledgement among Republicans that the votes aren’t there to formally open an impeachment inquiry into Biden, a step Republicans tore into Democrats for skipping ahead of former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment in 2019. But here’s the twist: The House Republicans demanding impeachment really don’t care about minor details like whip counts. They want what they want — and they want it yesterday.

Senate Republicans are doing what’s best for Senate Republicans, rather than what might help bail out the speaker.

CNN reported last week that GOP leadership is debating internally whether to skip the impeachment inquiry step, even if it will prove that Republican objections over the process in 2019 were more for show than concern about precedent. McCarthy tried to deny the reports on Friday when he told the website Brietbart that there would be a vote. But the votes needed for an impeachment inquiry aren’t about to suddenly materialize, no matter how heavily Trump leans on the holdouts.

A failed vote would leave holdouts vulnerable to attacks from Trump, who, according to Politico, has “suggested he’d use an impeachment vote to smoke out any MAGA-skeptical Republicans and support primary opponents against them.” In the long term, the members facing primary challengers losing to a raft of overtly MAGA candidates could cause key swing districts to flip to Democrats, potentially threatening McCarthy’s already very slim majority in the next election.

But in the short term, there are major risks to McCarthy for not holding an impeachment vote. For example, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has said she won’t vote for any spending bills without an impeachment inquiry. And Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., unsubtly hinted at further retribution during a radio interview Tuesday. He warned that “if Speaker McCarthy stands in our way, he may not have the job long.”

If he doesn’t schedule a vote on impeachment to mollify his members on the right, McCarthy will have to depend on Democratic votes to keep the government open. That would be yet another reason, though, for members of the chaos caucus like Gaetz to pull the trigger on a motion to vacate the chair, which could lead to McCarthy losing the speakership. It’s a convergence of all the forces that have been swirling since the contentious fight for the speaker’s gavel in January.

None of this is McConnell’s concern, though. His caucus is mostly uninterested in the impeachment contretemps playing out in the lower chamber and is clearly united enough to pass bills alongside the Democratic majority. In short, Senate Republicans are doing what’s best for Senate Republicans, rather than what might help bail out the speaker. From McConnell’s side of the Capitol, the problems McCarthy is facing are all of his making. Thus, McConnell is leaving him to figure it all out for himself.