Making Sense Of What’s Happening In Congress As GOP Barrels Toward A Shutdown

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 19: Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., stops to speak to reporters as he leaves the House Republican Conference caucus meeting in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, September 19, 2023. (B... WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 19: Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., stops to speak to reporters as he leaves the House Republican Conference caucus meeting in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, September 19, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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TPM’s Emine Yücel contributed reporting from Capitol Hill.

For weeks, senators have given off a whiff of superiority when they mention the sheer chaos in the lower chamber as hardline House Republicans completely derail the appropriations process.

“We need to set a model for the House, which is embroiled in this insane dysfunction,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told TPM Tuesday. 

Initial procedural votes passed by wildly lopsided majorities, lending credence to the senators’ chamber snobbery. The process had also been smoothed by the rare mutual respect of the Senate’s head appropriators, Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) (the first time women have held both posts, the two are quick to point out).    

Some of that self-satisfaction leaked away late last week when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), taking a cue from his lower house brethren, objected to the three-bill “minibus,” the Senate’s initial bundle of the Agriculture/Food and Drug Administration, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs and Transportation/Housing and Urban Development spending bills. 

“Unfortunately, last Thursday, a lone Senator, representing a very small group in this chamber, tried to undermine the bipartisan appropriations process with procedural hurdles,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. 

A series of end-of-week votes were scuttled, and the chamber’s progress slammed to a halt. Now, Senate Democrats have set up a vote to suspend the Senate rules, bypass Johnson’s blockade and keep the bills moving. That’ll take an initial vote, planned for Wednesday, to advance the motion to suspend the rules with a 60 vote threshold. To suspend the rules themselves, it’ll take 67 votes — and Senate Republicans are suddenly losing interest in being happy collaborators. 

Instead, they’re stepping back to watch House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) wrestle with his impossible-to-please right flank. 

“We’ve got to give Speaker McCarthy the room he needs to try to figure that out,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told Politico. “He pulled a rabbit out of the hat on the debt ceiling. So I wouldn’t underestimate him.”

Even when the Senate is operating at a full bipartisan tilt, the chamber has limited control. Republicans control the House, and many of them seem eager for a shutdown. 

“We should move ahead with our spending package and hope that the House will be inspired to act in a sane and rational way,” Blumenthal said.

But the lower chamber remains at the boiling point where it’s hovered more or less since the debt ceiling deal passed. 

House appropriators, with McCarthy’s blessing, significantly underwrote the spending levels McCarthy and President Joe Biden agreed to in the debt ceiling law, immediately creating friction between the chambers and increasing the chance of a shutdown. House Republicans then loaded up the unrealistic spending bills with poison pills, including anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ riders. 

That left the House majority with bills it largely couldn’t pass out of its own chamber, much less in the Senate, where they’d be dead on arrival. 

That dynamic climaxed in a heated closed-door meeting last week, when McCarthy reportedly warned his caucus that they would lose the shutdown if they didn’t start passing some spending bills. 

Over the weekend, members from the House Main Street and House Freedom Caucuses — representing the moderate and far-right wings of the party — came up with a new short-term funding bill to cut spending by one percent on average (with some departments, like Defense, untouched, and others being slashed by eight percent), plus some border security goodies for the hardliners (without the Ukraine aid Senate Republicans and Democrats want).  

But since then, it’s been more of the same. That bill seems to lack the support to pass through the House; House Republican leadership abruptly pulled a procedural vote to advance it from the floor Tuesday morning.

That’s in part due to the House Freedom Caucusers — who McCarthy has long enabled — seeming to enjoy their bask in the spotlight more than they want to accept anything but their dream legislation. 

“This is not conservative Republicanism. This is stupidity,” Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), one of the most vulnerable members sitting in a Biden district, told reporters Tuesday of the hard right’s unending demands. “These people can’t define a win. They don’t know how to take yes for an answer — it’s a clown show.”

And even if the continuing resolution does somehow squeak through the House, the Senate will turn it back. 

“Everyone knows that the GOP’s proposed CR is a non-starter here in the Senate,” Schumer said Tuesday. “Let me say that again: everyone knows that the House GOP’s proposed CR will not pass the Senate.”

Tuesday on the House floor saw yelling, crowds gathering around the recalcitrant House Republicans and a failed vote as the chamber spins its wheels. If this remains the state of play by October 1, the government will shut down. 

“They can’t get a rule passed,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) told TPM as he exited the raucous chamber, bursting into incredulous laughter. “If you can’t get a rule passed, what are we doing? It’s crazy.”  

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