Sep 27, 2023 - Politics & Policy

McCarthy’s personal peril intensifies funding fight

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Republican hardliners are turning up the heat on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), putting his job in jeopardy as Congress closes in on Saturday's deadline to fund the government.

Why it matters: The right's escalating threats to remove McCarthy if he cuts a deal with Democrats may force the speaker to choose between the leadership position he long coveted — and heading off a government shutdown.

  • McCarthy may even face a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario, as some GOP lawmakers say a government shutdown could be yet another trigger for an effort to remove him.

Driving the news: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), in a floor speech Tuesday, came as close as he has ever come to confirming plans to introduce a so-called motion to vacate the chair — a proposal to remove the speaker.

  • "The one thing I agree with my Democrat colleagues on is that this place has been poorly led. And we own that, and we have to do something about it," Gaetz said.
  • And, he added, "my Democrat colleagues will have an opportunity to do something about that ... and we will see if they bail out our failed speaker."
  • "Sounds like Matt Gaetz is talking about filing [a motion to vacate] every day," Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said after the speech.

State of play: McCarthy has floated several options to try to unify Republicans around a measure to temporarily hold off a shutdown and give lawmakers more time to decide how to fully fund the government.

  • All of those measures are non-starters with Democrats, however, and the speaker has acknowledged that he will need to cut a deal with the Democrat-controlled Senate to get anything passed.
  • But McCarthy's right flank is giving him little relief, demanding far more severe spending cuts and conservative policy riders than Democrats are willing to accept — and threatening to remove him if he dares to compromise.
  • Some Republicans have even said they won’t vote for any short-term funding bill, making McCarthy all the more reliant on Democrats’ votes.

What they're saying: Gaetz isn't the only hardliner voicing support for a vote to remove McCarthy.

  • "All hell would break loose" if McCarthy cuts a deal with Democrats to keep the government funded, said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.).
  • Asked about a possible motion to vacate, Norman added: "Ask Gaetz, but I think [a deal with Democrats] would trigger that."
  • Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) offered another potential precondition for an ouster attempt: "I think probably a shutdown would be a trigger for that."

What we're hearing: Rank-and-file House Republicans who spoke to Axios on the condition of anonymity acknowledged that the speaker is on shaky ground and said potential replacements are quietly being discussed.

Reality check: Some House Democrats have suggested they wouldn't go along with an effort to remove McCarthy as punishment for working with them.

  • That means McCarthy could have the votes to beat back a motion to vacate — though his odds of long-term survival as a GOP speaker propped up by Democratic votes is another question.

What he's saying: McCarthy has projected public confidence about the risks he faces as he tries to thread the needle on government funding.

  • "I'm not worried about whether my speakership is placed on the line," McCarthy told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "The only thing I care about is fighting for the American people."

Between the lines: Emotions are still raw from when McCarthy cut a deal with Democrats in May to do an end-run around right-wingers in order to raise the debt ceiling.

  • The debt-ceiling bill passed with more Democratic votes than Republican ones, prompting hardliners to shut down floor votes for a week in retribution.
  • "The speaker has to figure out what coalition he's trying to form together and who he represents, that's all," said right-wing Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.). "That's going to be something he's got to decide."
Go deeper