By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
The Senate has agreed on bipartisan legislation to avert a government shutdown, for a few more weeks at least, and now House Speaker Kevin McCarthy faces a question: Does he accept its offer now or later?
Amid all the intrigue, this much is certain: If the House takes up the Senate bill, it will pass. If McCarthy decides to call for a vote this week, he risks losing his job but may avoid a shutdown. If he decides to take it up next week or after, he risks paying the political costs of a shutdown; and losing his job anyway.
What happens next depends, in part, on which theory of House Republican power dynamics is correct. One is that House Republicans — including the radical faction, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida — get their act together and pass something, anything, as they did during the debt-limit discussion last spring. The mere fact of its passage helps break the logjam, allowing House and Senate negotiations to proceed.
This theory, it must be said, does not look good. Twice last week a handful of House Republicans were able to block even consideration of a bill to fund the military for the next fiscal year. McCarthy tried again Tuesday and brought up some full-year spending bills, but final passage looks highly unlikely. And again, none of these bills would stand a chance in the Senate. The idea is that once the House has staked out a position, it can begin bargaining, and that would eventually lead to a deal that all House Republicans could live with, even though many would vote against it.
The other theory is that, after a sufficient number of fiascos, mainstream conservative Republicans in the House will become so fed up that they’ll push McCarthy to ignore the radicals and just pass whatever they can. McCarthy would still be vulnerable to revenge from the Gaetz faction, which is strongly against a deal to keep the government open. But the odd rules for deposing and replacing the speaker might work in McCarthy’s favor, making it difficult for the radicals to get their own pick to replace him.
This second theory has a lot more going for it. As the chaos continues in the House, the likelihood will increase that mainstream Republicans will accept whatever the Senate does. The question is whether it is this fiasco that convinces them; or the next one. I suspect we may need at least one more. A long shutdown may be necessary before McCarthy decides that it is safer to offend the radicals than to anger mainstream conservatives.
There is one other possibility. Given the tiny Republican majority, a small group of relatively moderate Republicans could team with the Democrats to seize control of the House floor and force a vote on the Senate’s temporary funding measure; and then the final full-year funding bills moving through the upper chamber. (The best path is probably not the one that has received the most media coverage — a “discharge petition” — but something called “defeating the previous question.” The important point is that the procedures involved are complex and convoluted.)
But that would be a remarkable move and would essentially erase the Republican majority entirely; such rebels really would be RINOs, Republicans in Name Only.
In the meantime, there is little to do but wait. Some sort of shutdown still seems overwhelmingly likely. Keep in mind that, while short-term funding extensions are very easy to do and can keep the government running indefinitely, at least for now the House has rejected that approach. House Republicans have also turned their back on the overall spending agreement they struck with the Senate and White House last spring during the debt-limit negotiations.
So the odds continue to heavily favor a shutdown. The more open bet is how long it will last. There could be one long shutdown beginning Saturday at midnight. There could be (as in 1995-96) a short shutdown, then a temporary measure, and then a lengthy shutdown once that temporary funding expires. Or there could be a series of relatively short shutdowns as a series of temporary measures are passed. All because a handful of House Republicans, none of whom will vote for the final deal anyway, are pressuring their colleagues and their leadership to engage in pointless and harmful shutdown theatrics.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics.