By the end of Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was having a very bad week. He failed on two critical votes that were supposed to serve as a challenge to the chief antagonists in his Republican conference. McCarthy declared defeat for the day, leaving before 5 PM, then dismissed the House early on Wednesday, with no clear plan for steering away from the impending government shutdown.
It’s a trajectory of McCarthy’s own making, and this time around, he’s not going to get help from President Joe Biden or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to correct it. The White House has a good reason: The last time Biden bailed him out, McCarthy reneged on their deal. “We agreed to the budget deal and a deal is a deal — House GOP should abide by it,” a White House official told Politico. Their “chaos is making the case that they are responsible if there is a shutdown.”
The anonymous official is referring to the budget agreement that Biden and McCarthy reached to end the Republican debt limit hostage-taking earlier this year. Biden accepted cuts to next year’s budget in that agreement with McCarthy, who immediately capitulated to pressure from GOP extremists and reneged on the deal. The White House let him have a win on that one, in the spirit of good governance and saving the global economy, and McCarthy immediately tore up the agreement.
So instead, the Biden administration is preparing for a shutdown and messaging on it, focusing on how disastrous the additional cuts that McCarthy is pushing would be. In a memo on Tuesday, the White House said, “The continuing resolution [Republicans] introduced this week makes indiscriminate cuts to programs that millions of hardworking Americans count on—violating the agreement the Speaker negotiated with President Biden and rejecting the bipartisan approach of the Senate.”
The White House estimates the results of those cuts becoming permanent would mean, among other things: cutting 800 Customs and Border Protection agents; eliminating 110,000 Head Start positions for children; 60,000 seniors losing access to food services like Meals on Wheels; and 300,000 households, including tens of thousands of veterans and seniors, losing housing vouchers and being put at risk of homelessness. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Focusing on McCarthy as an unreliable (not to mention incompetent) dealmaker is part of the calculus for Democrats in making sure that he and his fellow Republicans own the coming debacle. “I sympathize with the speaker,” Schumer said on the floor Wednesday. ”I know his task isn’t easy. He’s got a lot of very, very difficult members to deal with.” However, Schumer continued, being a leader means accepting a “responsibility to the American people. Real lives would be disrupted in a shutdown." The answer, Schumer said, “is right in front of Speaker McCarthy, and he knows it: bipartisanship.” That puts the onus on McCarthy to reach out to Democrats.
For Democrats, what makes this a different situation than the debt limit is that the stakes aren’t nearly as high with a shutdown as with debt default. As damaging as a shutdown will be, it almost surely won’t be catastrophic. The other consideration is that Republicans will likely be blamed for it, as they were in 1995-96, in 2013, and in 2018. There’s no way around that, since the hard-liners have been cheerleading for a shutdown for weeks.
Isolating McCarthy is the only way to get him—or a critical mass of Republicans who don’t want to take the blame for the fiasco—to come around to working with them.
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