As House Republicans began ripping apart their party’s latest spending proposalon a conference call their own leaders held to promote it, the plan’s two main defenders had to hang up the phone. They had flights to catch.
Reps. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who represented centrists, and Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who negotiated for conservatives, thought they had found a deal that would at least unite the fractious GOP — even if it couldn’t pass the Senate and avert a shutdown. Minutes after Johnson and Donalds left that Sunday night conference call, however, their work imploded, with a half-dozen House conservatives railing against it.
More than a dozen Republicans, mostly Donalds’ colleagues in the conservative Freedom Caucus, are publicly torching the spending plan he brokered. With just a four-seat majority, Speaker Kevin McCarthy can only afford to lose a handful of them given that he can’t count on Democratic votes — leaving the GOP bill effectively dead.
But beneath the surface, things are even worse for McCarthy this time around. The faceplant by the two negotiators he’d empowered has exposed a full-on House Republican rebellion that’s officially underway.
It’s bigger than a clash between the centrist and right wings of the party. The Freedom Caucus itself is divided, with many members swatting down a plan backed by their own leader. Many of those conservatives are now openly threatening to try to oust McCarthy if he relies on Democratic votes to avoid a shutdown, but they’re also withholding their support from the only Republican plan on paper.
“Some of these folks would vote against the Bible because there’s not enough Jesus in it,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told POLITICO as the no votes started stacking up.
The House GOP’s internal revolt is erupting at a tense moment for McCarthy and his party. With 12 days left to go, he has no viable plan to keep the government open without risking his own gavel. Despite that grim reality, McCarthy is trying to resuscitate the plan that Johnson and Donalds helped hammer out — telling his leadership team on Monday that their only other option would be getting jammed by the Senate, according to multiple people familiar with his remarks.
The speaker also reiterated a vow that the House would not leave this weekend without taking action on spending.
“It’s hard to pass everything in this place. We started out with a five-seat majority,” McCarthy told reporters earlier Monday, summing up his lack of options. “Anything we do is pretty tough.”
After months of behind-the-scenes tension, McCarthy is caught in the middle of open warfare between conservative rabble-rousers who constantly threaten his gavel and more loyal rank-and-file Republicans, including moderates, who say they’ve swallowed too many concessions for colleagues who are never content.
Even McCarthy himself is now sniping at some of the holdouts. After retiring Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) called him a “weak speaker” in a sharply worded statement opposing the spending deal, the Californian hit back: “If Victoria is concerned about fighting stronger, I wish she would have run again and not quit,” the speaker told reporters.
His remarks soon sparked backlash from his top antagonist, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). But Gaetz wasn’t the only one sniping on social media — Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), who’s privately seethed over multiple votes forced by the GOP’s right flank this year, blasted the hardliners on Monday as he threatened to try to pass a short-term funding bill “without them.”
“They don’t know what they want. They don’t know how to take yes for an answer. They don’t know how to define a win,” Lawler wrote on X, previously known as Twitter, about his own colleagues.
Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), asked about Gaetz’s critique of McCarthy, questioned what the Floridian had accomplished since joining Congress “other than running his mouth.”
House GOP centrists found their frustration further fueled as, they say, it became clear that some Republicans declared opposition to the latest deal before fully reading it. The proposal amounts to a monthlong stopgap bill that would cut domestic agencies’ funding levels and incorporate a slew of GOP border policies.
Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.), who lead the more centrist Main Street Caucus that helped broker the deal, are hoping that an intense education effort between now and Thursday will help their bill squeak through without having to reopen negotiations that promise to only deepen the infighting.
But even if they can pull that off, House Republicans will have consumed immense internal energy on a bill that is dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
And McCarthy is starting to subtly distance himself from the spending proposal. During a separate meeting on Monday, his team told GOP communicators that the speaker backed the deal — but that further questions should go directly to the negotiators, the Freedom and Main Street Caucuses — according to multiple attendees.
(Publicly, McCarthy has kept the plan at arm’s length. Asked if he was willing to tweak the plan, McCarthy told reporters on Monday: “This CR package was developed by Freedom Caucus and Main Street.”)
One major hang-up that Republicans are racing to resolve is whether the stopgap bill includes new funding for Ukraine.
Bice alluded to “clarifications that we are going to make,” adding that some of the deal’s critics had falsely assumed President Biden’s request for Ukraine cash was “tied in” to it.
But supporters of the deal are also warning skeptics that while they may not like the Main Street-Freedom Caucus funding deal, right now it is the only game in town. The first test of their work will come when leadership tries to formally tee up debate on the short-term spending patch, which some GOP lawmakers predicted could happen as soon as Tuesday.
GOP leaders had eyed a passage vote on Thursday, though several Republicans said that could slip or be pulled entirely.
“For my colleagues who disagree [with the deal], I would ask them: What’s your plan? What’s your strategy?” said Donalds, one of the lead negotiators, about pushback from other Republicans.
Meanwhile, as the GOP plan teeters on life support, another group of aspiring negotiators is waiting in the wings.
A separate bipartisan group of centrists is discussing how to get a clean short-term funding bill with additional disaster aid past opposition from the right flank, with some of those members slated to vote by Tuesday on whether to endorse the plan, according to two people with knowledge of the plans. Still, the Republicans involved are waiting to see if their own conference can unify this week on the GOP-only plan. Some have renewed talk of a so-called discharge petition that would force a House vote on a bipartisan solution, though the timing rules for that move would fail to prevent any funding lapse come Sept. 30.
“We’ve got to see what happens this week with what we’re pushing,” said Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-N.Y.) about the nascent bipartisan effort.
More broadly, GOP centrists are concerned that voters back home won’t look kindly on the current dysfunction. Some want to see McCarthy dare conservatives to oppose a deal that includes the GOP’s marquee border bill.
Other Republicans are threatening that conservative critics of the current deal will find their opposition weaponized against them from within the GOP.
Rep. Matt Rosendale’s “decision to stand with Nancy Pelosi and against securing the border will be a major issue for him if he decides to run for Senate,” a party operative who works on Senate races said of the Montana Republican, who is weighing a challenge to Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
Another House GOP lawmaker, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about negotiations, may have summed the situation up best by saying: “It’s a mess! No one has a plan.”