Centrist Dems and McCarthy's allies are in secret talks to strike a deal - Living Strong Television Network
Centrist Dems and McCarthy's allies are in secret talks to strike a deal

The long-shot idea that Democrats could bail out the beleaguered Speaker Kevin McCarthy is suddenly getting real.

Small groups of centrist Democrats are holding secret talks with several of McCarthy’s close GOP allies about a last-ditch deal to fund the government, according to more than a half-dozen people familiar with the discussions. The McCarthy allies engaging in those conversations are doing so out of serious concern that their party can’t stop an impending shutdown on its own, given the intransigence of a handful of conservatives.

Lawmakers involved in the talks — who mostly belong to the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, the Republican Governance Group or the centrist New Democrat Coalition — have labored to keep their work quiet. Many Republicans involved are incredibly worried about revealing their backup plan, wanting to wait until every other tool in McCarthy’s arsenal has failed.

That moment may not be until next week, just ahead of the Sept. 30 shutdown deadline.

“It’s got to be bipartisan anyway, at some point,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said of a solution to the shutdown crisis. Referring to the conservative holdouts, he added: “So why negotiate with these five or 10 people who move the goalposts?”

Generally, the bipartisan group is focusing on two major ideas: a procedural maneuver to force a vote on a compromise spending plan — or somehow crafting a bill so popular that McCarthy can pass it and survive any challenge from the right. That bill would likely be a bipartisan short-term patch with some disaster money, Ukraine aid and small-scale border policies, according to multiple people briefed on the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Problem Solvers began showing their framework to members Wednesday, with plans to formally vote on endorsing it by the evening, according to two people familiar with the plans who were granted anonymity to discuss them. Another group, which included top aides for both the New Democrat Coalition and Republican Governance Group, met earlier Wednesday to discuss their own stopgap funding plan, according to three other aides familiar with the situation.

While the talks were borne out of the spending crisis, they have by necessity had to address another glaring problem for the speaker: Whether Democrats are also willing to protect his gavel from a vote to strip it if he ultimately does seek support across the aisle.

Privately, many Democrats say they’re willing to help the Californian with both problems, though they’ll demand concessions — and they’ll need their leader, Hakeem Jeffries, to be on board.

To be clear, any plan devised by these rank-and-file members would face serious hurdles before it got to any possible vote. But the bipartisan McCarthy-bailout conversations have only gained traction as his antagonists keep derailing his other option — a GOP-only spending patch that’s packed with conservative border policies and funding cuts.

Even if the speaker can resuscitate that proposal, Republicans have long known it wouldn’t pass the Senate. Eventually, they’d need to work with Democrats.

Exactly what Democrats could or would demand for their cooperation is unclear. The ultimate decision, they say, will rest with Jeffries, who’s stayed mum about how he’d handle a possible bipartisan compromise. Any questions Jeffries gets about the possibility of a GOP bid to toss the speaker, he bats aside as hypothetical.

(Asked about the possibility by POLITICO on Tuesday, Jeffries said: “House Democrats are focused on making life better for everyday Americans — solving problems on their behalf. House Republicans are focused on fighting each other.”)

Jeffries did huddle privately midday Wednesday with one of the groups involved in the cross-aisle talks: the roughly 60-member Problem Solvers Caucus.

Inside the room, Jeffries signaled he’d be willing to look at the centrist bloc’s various ideas for a solution — including a procedural gambit to pass a stopgap bill if it came to that, according to four people familiar with the situation. He said any short-term plan would need to reflect the bipartisan budget deal reached this spring.

“You’ll be part of the solution, and I’ve been supportive of your efforts in the past,” Jeffries told the group, according to two people familiar with his remarks.

McCarthy’s broken rules of thumb

One day earlier, the Problem Solvers’ two leaders — Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) — were seen entering the office of the House parliamentarian alongside Bacon, a stalwart McCarthy ally.

Those members declined to say what they discussed regarding House rules. But behind the scenes, several options are on the table — including the unlikely choice to pursue a procedural move known as a discharge petition that would force a bill to the floor. (That avenue comes with a strict 30-day timeframe, so it has little chance of preventing a shutdown that’s just 11 days away.)

Bacon later recalled telling a group of roughly 30 Republicans, including members of leadership, during a closed-door meeting this week that he was “done” with GOP-only negotiations, arguing that the handful of holdouts in his party can’t be satisfied.

In a brief interview, McCarthy acknowledged the quiet efforts by centrists in both parties to team up on a spending solution. But he specifically dismissed the idea that any of his Republicans would back a discharge petition that needs a majority of the House to advance.

McCarthy said that his “rule of thumb” while in power has three components: Don’t oppose a rule to debate your party’s bill; support “whoever comes out of the conference for speaker” and do not sign onto a discharge petition.

Several Republicans have broken the first two items on his list, McCarthy added, “and so it has disrupted the entire conference. And people think they can do other things.”

‘If you are a nihilist’

Despite the low likelihood of a discharge petition to fund the government, it is still coming up in closed-door meetings as vulnerable Republicans make it particularly clear that they’re starting to lose patience with the conservative blockade.

Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), who has been involved in the GOP negotiations, alluded to the New York delegation as being “very candid” during internal talks that if Republicans can’t work out a short-term funding deal, “we’re going to sign a discharge petition.”

Two people familiar with those conversations pointed to New York Rep. Mike Lawler, who sits in one of the GOP’s toughest battleground seats, as especially vocal in private meetings about threats to sign a discharge petition.

Asked if he sees an increasing chance of centrists from both parties teaming up as the stalemate continues, Lawler said that “I would like to see the House Republican majority govern” by passing a short-term patch that can start further talks with the Senate.

“But until that happens,” he added, “we need to keep the government funded and operational. And my only comment to my colleagues is: If we want to govern, we need to do so expeditiously.”

The pushback from McCarthy on a possible discharge petition comes after he repeatedly failed to get his own members behind a GOP-only bill that would pair a stopgap funding patch with spending cuts and a Republican border bill. One Republican lawmaker involved in the talks acknowledged that the bipartisan maneuvering could help pressure conservatives to stop resisting any solution.

On the other hand, this lawmaker added, “If you are a nihilist and you want to burn the place down, you don’t care.”

But there are also risks for the Republicans involved in the bipartisan talks. Some conservative colleagues are already warning of political backlash from base voters, given that the very Democrats they are working with want to defeat them next year.

“I don’t relish the prospect that liberal members of the Republican caucus would decide to govern as Democrats with Democrats,” said Bishop, a McCarthy critic who helped sink a defense spending bill this week.

The biggest risk of all in the current cross-aisle conversations, though, is to McCarthy himself.

Helping advance a bipartisan deal would put him past a red line that his most vocal opponents have said could result in a vote to strip his gavel. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is on record vowing to force that vote if McCarthy brings a “clean” funding bill to the floor.

Bacon urged the speaker to stand firm: “We should ignore it. You can’t kowtow to that.”

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