With plenty still to do ahead of the impending shutdown, the House is essentially paralyzed as McCarthy faces the most serious threat yet to his gavel. | Francis Chung/POLITICO
Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman has never seen a scenario like this week: “Not in real life — in movies. It’s crazy.”
It’s practically a national adage to say that Congress is wracked by dysfunction. Yet in the days leading up to Sunday’s potential shutdown, the House and the Senate are witnessing a cinematic parade of horribles.
The GOP-controlled House has failed to pass a spending plan. At the helm, Speaker Kevin McCarthy faces daily threats to his job from the right and recently launched an impeachment inquiry that some of its own members believe botched its inaugural hearing.
The Democratic Senate has its own troubles, well beyond a military promotion blockade: The death of one member, Dianne Feinstein, and the indictment of another, Bob Menendez. With two more Democrats sidelined by Covid, the chamber is laboring to pass a spending bill as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) threatens to use the rules to force his very own brief government shutdown (again).
“The dark part is losing Sen. Feinstein. I just saw her yesterday morning. Life is precious,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). A shutdown on top of that, he added, would be “horrible. How do you face people and tell them we couldn’t do our job?”
While the increasingly likely shutdown is consuming Capitol Hill, it could be only a preview of lawmakers’ problems for the next 13 months. With plenty still to do, the House is essentially paralyzed as McCarthy faces his most serious threat yet to his gavel.
That leaves Congress unable to get almost anything done through the 2024 elections, even if it can find a path out of the shutdown — one that lawmakers are nowhere near agreement on right now. Members old enough to remember the 1990s are now looking to that era’s nasty stalemate between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich as the most apt comparison to their current predicament.
Even former Speaker Gingrich acknowledged to POLITICO that it’s tougher in today’s tiny GOP majority, compared to his comfortable control decades ago. Then, as he put it, he could “afford to have five or six people be idiots.”
A current House Republican, Rep. John James of Michigan, had another phrase for those hardliners in his own party: “Clown caucus.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who’s seen his party endure two lengthy funding lapses under GOP control since the Clinton years, summed up the existential dread: “All shutdowns begin with people confident that the shutdown is a good thing,” he said. “And end with people knowing that it wasn’t.”
The immediate crisis isn’t just government funding. Congress will soon be shirking its duty on expiring programs like authorizing federal aviation safety enforcement — which hasn’t lapsed since 2011 — as well as flood insurance that serves millions of people.
Perhaps the most politically painful part of any shutdown, though, will be the potential for missed checks in mid-October for millions of active-duty service members — which could make this shutdown the first in recent memory to adversely affect all military pay. Congress avoided that nightmare scenario in past shutdowns but hasn’t yet this time.
“As soon as that mother out there with her two kids can’t pay the rent, and her husband is in some foreign country fighting for us, that’s when the heat starts to build,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), one of many in his party who’s resigned to a shutdown.
In an altercation on the Senate floor, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) mocked Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) for arguing that, rather than pass a bill to pay the military, senators should pay all federal workers with a stopgap. It was one of several tense exchanges on the floor this past week, tangles that often foreshadow a shutdown.
The back-and-forth with Murray “brought me back to Saturday morning cartoons and watching Peanuts with the teacher going ‘wha, wha, wha.’ Because they were words, but they didn’t mean anything,” Cruz fumed afterward.
The Senate is growing more frenetic by the minute. Republicans are flailing to negotiate a border enforcement amendment for funding the government, to no avail so far. Two GOP senators, Paul and John Kennedy of Louisiana, duked it out over flood insurance policy. Murray stopped Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) from passing a two-week stopgap because it lacked extensions of other key programs and didn’t give Congress enough time to dig out of its hole.
“There’s a lot of stuff swirling around. It’s never dull,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the perpetually upbeat minority whip.
Yet there’s no hint of an agreement between the House and Senate to fund the government, even for a few days. Amid all that, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) invoked a higher power: “I’m just hoping and praying as a pastor that we’ll get it right.”
“Politics is so choreographed and contrived because sometimes humanity gets lost,” Warnock said.
Another pastor across the Capitol, Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), offered a lighter approach: “I’m trying to raise some money to bring the Temptations in. They had a song called ‘Ball of Confusion’ — let’s see if we can get permission for them to come out onto the floor, right after the national anthem.”
Still, the mood in the House is particularly bleak for Republicans, who are watching dozens of their colleagues tank bills that the party painstakingly negotiated specifically to earn consensus support. That’s all with their embattled leader in the most obvious peril he’s faced since January — with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) name-dropping speaker replacements on the floor, feet away from McCarthy.
Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), a founding member of the Freedom Caucus who’s since left the group, described the Capitol as “more broken” by the minute as his colleagues call for the speaker’s head largely for the purpose of a “fundraising text message.”
“Now you’re incentivized, for your political survival, to burn the place down,” Schweikert said.
As House Republicans look for a way out of this weekend’s shutdown, they know they’ll need to ask for help from Democrats — no easy task after their vows to dig up dirt on President Joe Biden. Although Democrats are not exactly cowed after the GOP’s big, shaky step toward impeachment this week.
During an awkward elevator ride in the Capitol with a half-dozen Democrats on Friday, Ways and Means Committee Chair Jason Smith (R-Mo.) got some unexpected, and wry, sympathy after a testy exchange with a reporter over the GOP’s investigation of Hunter Biden.
After Smith exited the elevator, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) quipped to his colleagues: “That dude had a rough week. I feel bad for him.” Some of the Democrats riding along with him busted out laughing.
Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.