McCarthy is giving hard-right Republicans what they want. But it never seems to be enough

A closeup of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s strategy has preserved his tenuous hold on his post, but has also marked it by chaos — including a fast-approaching government shutdown that threatens to disrupt life for millions of Americans.
(Mark Schiefelbein / Associated Press)
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Staring down a fast-approaching government shutdown that threatens to disrupt life for millions of Americans, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has turned to a strategy that so far has preserved his tenuous hold on House leadership but that has also marked it by chaos. That strategy is to give hard-right lawmakers what they want.

In his eight months running the House, McCarthy has lived by the upbeat personal mantra of “never give up” as he dodges threats to his speakership and tries to portray Republicans as capable stewards of the U.S. government. He has long chided Washington for underestimating him.

But with the House’s GOP majority in turmoil, all but certain to hurl the country into a shutdown, McCarthy has set aside the more traditional tools of the gavel to keep his party’s rebels in line. Instead, he has acceded to a small band led by those instigating efforts to oust him.


It’s an untested strategy that has left McCarthy deeply frustrated, his allies rushing to his side and his grip on power ever more uncertain with the Sept. 30 deadline to fund the government less than a week away.

“We still have a number of days,” McCarthy said Saturday as he arrived at the Capitol.

“I think when it [is] crunch time, people ... that have been holding off all this time blaming everybody else will finally, hopefully move off,” the Bakersfield Republican said. “Because shutting down — and having border agents not be paid, your Coast Guard not get paid — I don’t see how that’s good.”

The White House says President Biden has gotten the updated COVID-19 vaccine and the annual flu shot.

Sept. 23, 2023

Governing with a narrow House majority, McCarthy is facing a more virulent strain of the hard-right tactics that chased the last two Republican speakers, Reps. John A. Boehner of Ohio and Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, into early retirement. Like them, McCarthy has tried various tactics to restore order. But more than ever, he finds himself swept along as far-right lawmakers, determined to bend Washington to their will, take control in the House.

McCarthy tried to win conservatives’ support by agreeing to their demand for an impeachment inquiry into President Biden and then by meeting their calls for spending cuts, only to be turned back whenever a few of them held out for more concessions.

He has retreated from the budget deal he made with Biden months ago that established the spending threshold for the year. Instead, he is trying to reduce spending more in line with the level he promised the GOP caucus’ right flank during his tumultuous fight to become the House speaker.

Yet all of the concessions seem to never be enough.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who is leading the fight for more, crowed to reporters Thursday: “If you look at the events of the last two weeks, things seem to be kind of coming my way.”


Gaetz said he was delivering a eulogy for the short-term funding legislation known as a continuing resolution — a mechanism traditionally used to keep the government functioning during spending debates.

Democrats have been eager to lay blame for the impending shutdown on McCarthy and the dysfunction in the House. Biden has called on the speaker to stick to the annual spending numbers they negotiated to raise the nation’s borrowing limit.

McCarthy “handed over the gavel to the most extreme in his party,” said Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, a senior Democrat.

With the House at a standstill and lawmakers gone for the weekend, McCarthy turned to the plan advanced by Gaetz to start processing some of the nearly one dozen annual spending bills needed to fund the various government departments, and to shelve for now the idea of a stopgap approach while the work continues.

It’s a nearly impossible task as Congress runs out of time to find a short-term spending plan.

“We can in no way pass 11 bills in eight days,” said Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the top Democrat appropriator, referring last week to the measures Congress would have to approve before Sept. 30.


DeLauro, a veteran lawmaker, estimated it would take at least six weeks to pass the bills in both chambers of Congress then negotiate differences between the House and Senate versions. She urged Republicans to embrace a continuing resolution to allow government agencies to stay open.

Republican Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, one of McCarthy’s closest allies, has pointed out that the Senate has advanced legislation at spending levels above those in the deal reached with Biden. McHenry argues that House Republicans need to pass their own bills at the lower numbers to strengthen their hand in negotiations.

For Congress to solve the current impasse, many expect that it will take a bipartisan coalition that leaves McCarthy’s right flank behind. That would be certain to spark a GOP challenge to his leadership.

In the Senate, Democratic and Republican leaders are working on a package that would fund the government at levels far higher than the far-right House Republicans are demanding and include emergency disaster aid and money for Ukraine, which some GOP House members oppose.

“Eventually, we’re going to get something back from the U.S. Senate, and it’s not going to be to our liking,” said Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, a leading Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. “Then the speaker will have a very difficult decision.”

Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.