McCarthy rejects Senate spending bill while scrambling for a House plan that averts a shutdown

Published: Sep. 28, 2023 at 10:55 AM MST|Updated: Sep. 28, 2023 at 9:09 PM MST
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WASHINGTON (AP) — A government shutdown appeared all but inevitable as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy dug in Thursday, vowing he will not take up Senate legislation designed to keep the federal government fully running despite House Republicans’ struggle to unite around an alternative.

Congress is at an impasse just days before a disruptive federal shutdown that would halt paychecks for many of the federal government’s roughly 2 million employees, as well as 2 million active-duty military troops and reservists, furlough many of those workers and curtail government services.

But the House and Senate are pursuing different paths to avert those consequences even though time is running out before government funding expires after midnight on Saturday.

“I still got time. I’ve got time to do other things,” McCarthy told reporters Thursday evening at the Capitol, adding, “At the end of the day, we’ll get it all done.”

The Senate is working toward passage of a bipartisan measure that would fund the government until Nov. 17 as longer-term negotiations continue, while also providing $6 billion for Ukraine and $6 billion for U.S. disaster relief.

The House, meanwhile, took up four of the dozen annual spending bills that fund federal agencies. Republicans were heartened as they passed three bills that would fund the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and State Department, though the fourth bill to fund federal agriculture programs failed.

In one sign of deepening resistance to assisting Ukraine, more than half the House Republicans voted against providing Ukraine $300 million in military aid, though the money was approved on a bipartisan 311-117 vote.

The House’s movement on the appropriations legislation won’t keep the government from shutting down, but leadership hoped the progress would cajole enough Republicans to support a House-crafted continuing resolution that temporarily funds the government and boosts security at the U.S. border with Mexico.

It’s a long shot, but McCarthy predicted a deal.

Lawmakers, already weary from days of late-night negotiating, showed signs of strain at McCarthy’s closed-door meeting with Republicans Thursday morning. It was marked by a tense exchange between the speaker and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., according to those in the room.

Gaetz, who has taunted McCarthy for weeks with threats to oust him from his post, confronted the speaker about conservative online influencers being paid to post negative things about him. McCarthy shot back that he wouldn’t waste his time on something like that, Gaetz told reporters as he exited the meeting.

McCarthy’s allies left the meeting fuming about Gaetz’s tactics.

With his majority splintering, McCarthy is scrambling to come up with a plan for preventing a shutdown and win Republican support. The speaker told Republicans he would reveal a Republican stopgap plan, known as a continuing resolution or CR, on Friday, according to those in the room, while also trying to force Senate Democrats into giving some concessions.

But with time running out, many GOP lawmakers were either withholding support for a temporary measure until they had a chance to see it. Others are considering joining Democrats, without McCarthy’s support, to bring forward a bill that would prevent a shutdown.

With his ability to align his conference in doubt, McCarthy has little standing to negotiate with Senate Democrats. He has also attempted to draw President Joe Biden into negotiations, but the White House, so far, has shown no interest.

Biden sought to apply more pressure on McCarthy, urging him to compromise with Democrats even though that could threaten his job.

“I think that the speaker is making a choice between his speakership and American interests,” Biden said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Congress and the White House had already worked out top-line spending levels for next year with an agreement this summer that allowed the government to continue borrowing to pay its bills. But McCarthy was deviating from that deal and courting a shutdown by catering to Republicans who say it didn’t do enough to cut spending, he said.

“By focusing on the views of the radical few instead of the many, Speaker McCarthy has made a shutdown far more likely,” Schumer said.

McCarthy insisted in a CNBC interview that the House will have its say. “Will I accept and surrender to what the Senate decides? The answer is no, we’re our own body.”

But later at the Capitol, he openly complained about the difficulty he is having herding Republican lawmakers.

“Members say they only want to vote for individual bills, but they hold me up all summer and won’t let me bring individual bills up. Then they say they won’t vote for a stopgap measure that keeps government open,” McCarthy told reporters.

“So I don’t know, where do you go in that scenario?”

The speaker also hinted he has a backup plan but gave no indication he was ready to work with Democrats to pass something in the House.

Meanwhile, the White House, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, notified staff on Thursday to prepare for a shutdown, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press. Employees who are furloughed would have four hours on Monday to prepare their offices for the shutdown.

The White House plans to keep on all commissioned officers. That includes chief of staff Jeff Zients, press secretary Karine Jean Pierre, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior-level personnel, by declaring them “excepted” during a shutdown, according to the White House email.

Military troops and federal workers, including law enforcement officers, air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration officers, will also report to work because they are essential to protecting life and property. They would miss paychecks if the shutdown lasts beyond Oct. 13, the next scheduled payday, though they are slated to receive backpay once any shutdown ends.

Social Security payments for seniors, Medicare and Medicaid payments to health care providers, and disability payments to veterans will continue, as much of the government will continue to function. But there will be critical services that do stop. For example, the U.S. Treasury says that, with two-thirds of IRS employees potentially furloughed, taxpayer phone calls to the agency will go unanswered and 363 Taxpayer Assistance Centers across the country will close.

Many Republicans have voiced fears they would be blamed for a shutdown — including in the Senate, where many GOP members are aligned with Democrats on a temporary bill.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he agrees with many of the goals of the House Republicans, but he warned a shutdown will not achieve any of them.

“Instead of producing any meaningful policy outcomes, it would actually take the important progress being made on a number of key issues and drag it backward,” McConnell said.

Nevertheless, Senate Republicans huddled for much of the day to cobble together a plan that could win support to boost funding for border security. McCarthy’s House allies were also hoping the threat of a shutdown could help conservatives with their push to limit federal spending and combat illegal immigration at the U.S-Mexico border.

“Anytime you have a stopgap situation like this, you have an opportunity to leverage,” said Rep. Garret Graves, R-La. “This is another opportunity. America does not want an open Southern border. The polls are crystal clear. It’s having a profound impact on us.”

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Associated Press writers Seung Min Kim and Fatima Hussein contributed reporting.