House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was asked yesterday afternoon what the chances are of a government shutdown by the end of the week. “I don’t know,” the California Republican replied. “Ask President Biden.”
As the GOP leader almost certainly knows, this didn’t make any sense. Spending bills that fund the government are ultimately signed by the president, but Biden can’t write and pass appropriations measures on his own. It’s up to Congress — which has the power of the purse — to approve the legislation.
As McCarthy has probably noticed, that’s proven to be far more difficult than expected this year, as far-right House Republicans ignore their party’s leaders and push the nation incrementally closer to Saturday's shutdown deadline.
But the House speaker’s unfortunate answer to a simple question was only part of a larger strategy. NBC News reported:
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday he thinks it’d be “very important” to have a meeting with President Joe Biden to avert a government shutdown and emphasize the need to pass the GOP’s border security package.
One of the inconvenient details of this mess is that it’d be incredibly easy to avoid a shutdown: House GOP leaders could simply go around their radical flank, strike a deal with Democrats, and keep the government’s lights on. McCarthy has avoided this solution because he assumes, correctly, that it would lead many of his members to try to oust him.
Asked yesterday why he’s refused to even begin talks with congressional Democrats, the House speaker responded, “Why don’t we just cut a deal with the president?” He added, “The president can really come down to this and make sure the government stays open.”
Stepping back, there are three things to keep in mind. The first is that McCarthy’s new Biden-related position is difficult to take seriously. As a Washington Post report noted this morning, “Of course, Biden has played no role in bringing Congress to the brink of a shutdown.”
If the main holdouts standing in the way of a solution were House Democrats — the members McCarthy has been ignoring — it might make some sense to think the president could use his influence to twist some arms and apply some pressure. But since the holdouts are McCarthy’s own members, the White House doesn’t have a realistic role to play.
The second dimension to remember is why the House speaker stumbled onto this odd talking point: McCarthy is desperate to spread the blame around, even if reality tells a story that accurately holds the GOP responsible.
Finally, perhaps the most striking thing about the House speaker asking for a meeting with the president is that McCarthy already had his meeting with the president.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained via social media that the speaker and Biden “struck a deal ... months ago.” The New York Democrat added, “Deal is done. Biden held his end. Nothing to relitigate. McCarthy can go pound sand.”
This has the benefit of being true: When Republicans launched a debt-ceiling crisis, the parties reached an agreement on spending levels. Democratic leaders — on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — are eager to honor that agreement. It’s McCarthy and House GOP members who want new, lower spending levels, despite the deal.
In effect, the House speaker wants a new meeting in the hopes of revisiting the terms of the agreement reached during the old meeting. That, by all appearances, simply isn’t going to happen.