Republicans seeking a government shutdown were playing a self-defeating game

Were the House extremists deliberately trying to sabotage the US economy?

US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy after the House of Representatives passed a stopgap government funding bill to avert an immediate government shutdown, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on  September 30. Reuters
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“There has to be an adult in the room,” declared House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, explaining why he finally decided to ignore the handful of extremists within his Republican House of Representatives caucus and partner with Democrats to continue to fund the US government for another 45 days.

Republicans were going to face a huge blowback for an unnecessary shutdown because a small group of them simply would not agree with anyone, or even each other, about what they wanted. Their endless grievances changed daily. It was, as I noted in these pages last week, a government shut down over nothing.

Such a total meltdown within Republican ranks, would undermine claims that the House should remain in Republican hands, let alone the Senate or the White House.

Mr McCarthy, and almost all Republicans, are aware that historically the party forcing the shutdown has paid the political price. As Representative Patrick T McHenry of North Carolina, a staunch ally of the Speaker, explained with evident exasperation: “It’s been tried before.”

The extremists, however, were utterly unmoved. While Democrats naturally spun the 45-day funding extension as a victory, Republican extremists painted it as a pathetic cave-in by Mr McCarthy and most other Republicans, and a victory for the “uni-party”, which they claim unites other Republicans and all Democrats in a de facto coalition representing the wealthy and elites.

The Republican extremist fringe was so outraged that they've decided the Speaker has to go. It’s a confrontation they’ve been longing for.

Mr McCarthy agreed that any individual House member could bring a “motion to vacate”, which could remove him from the Speaker’s chair. One of his most voluble detractors, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, has vowed to do just that. Yet party establishment figures and their media allies are now asking if Mr Gaetz is secretly working for the Democratic Party.

The most substantive issue in this sorry spectacle is increased aid to Ukraine, which is anathema to pro-Moscow Republicans. Mr Gaetz accused Mr McCarthy of making a secret deal with Democrats for additional aid for Ukraine in the near future, which the Speaker flatly denies. But this strongly pro-Russia sentiment among Maga Republicans is why Mr McCarthy inexcusably barred Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from addressing the House last month. Yet most Republicans, even in the House, and certainly in the Senate, and the overwhelming majority of Democrats favour the funding that the Biden administration has prepared to provide to Ukraine.

The 45-day stopgap spending bill is an obvious victory for US President Joe Biden and the Democrats and seems to usher Mr McCarthy into the realm of governance-minded American leaders, aka “the adults”. The conclusion is unmistakable: not only did he find it impossible to work with the radical fringe of the Republicans, but he also ultimately preferred to partner with Democrats to keep the government funded and prevent the Republican Party from incurring yet another brutal self-inflicted wound.

The outcome raises two important questions. Can Mr McCarthy remain in power? And what will happen in 45 days when the stopgap spending measure expires?

If Mr McCarthy remains Speaker, he has a solid coalition of Democrats and Republicans that do not wish to see a shutdown in 45 days or at any other time. But preventing a replay of the bizarre near-miss last week depends on a Republican Speaker being willing to partner with Democrats in passing rational spending bills acceptable to the Senate and the White House.

Mr McCarthy will effectively be at the mercy of Democrats if the extremists present a motion to vacate. Democrats might vote to keep him in place in order to repeat avoiding a shutdown when the next deadline approaches. However, Mr McCarthy has caved to the extreme right at every stage, including recently launching a baseless impeachment inquiry into Mr Biden. So, there are ample reasons for Democrats to relish watching him suffer the disaster he allowed to be baked into his, from their perspective, corrupted at birth, speakership.

But the national interest, and the agenda of the administration, militates towards keeping Mr McCarthy in place, rather than allowing the extremists to oust him and sending the House into even greater chaos. Nonetheless, Mr McCarthy may be even more disliked by most Democrats than his internal Republican opposition. So, even if Mr Biden pushes for it, as he likely will, it might be difficult for House minority leader Hakeem Jefferies to get Democrats to support Mr McCarthy even if that’s what the party hierarchy decides it wants.

But even if Mr McCarthy remains in place, with an overwhelming majority of Republicans and Democrats who wish to see the US government continue to function without a shutdown, nonetheless the biggest bone of contention remains aid to Ukraine. That’s categorically opposed by the proto-fascist Maga Republicans, plus a handful of neo-isolationist leftist Democrats and Republican libertarians who oppose almost all US international engagement.

Both parties, particularly Republicans, walked right to the edge of a shutdown last week but ultimately concluded they wanted no part of it because of the political consequences, not to mention the national interest involved. The US economy has recovered to an amazing extent, but most credible economists agree that the recovery is fragile. The country simply cannot afford a shutdown at this crucial stage, which could, especially if it were protracted, send the whole economy into a tailspin and ruin a remarkable comeback.

Do the Republican extremists really deliberately intend to sabotage the national economy for political purposes, either to attack their own party leadership and/or try to bring down Mr Biden and help their hero, Donald Trump? Alas, even such cynical machinations may be beyond the infantile calculations of these nihilistic radicals, who simply seem bent on pointlessly defying everyone else and demagoguing in their own personal interests as much as possible.

Thus, the most likely scenario going forward is that Mr McCarthy will remain Speaker with some Democratic support to defend the coalition that prevented the absurd Seinfeld-like “shut down over nothing” and keep the status quo alive in the interest of both the Republican Party establishment, and Mr McCarthy, as well as Mr Biden, the White House, and, ironically, the President’s re-election bid. The old adage holds that “politics makes strange bedfellows”. But it becomes even stranger when the strangest characters make a plausible, narrowly averted bid to take over America's national political theatre.

Published: October 02, 2023, 2:00 PM
Updated: October 16, 2023, 5:02 PM