WASHINGTON – With no clear strategy, no sure support and not much time left, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy nevertheless vowed Wednesday he would not give up trying to persuade his colleagues to pass a temporary funding bill to prevent a federal government shutdown.
But lawmakers watching and waiting for the beleaguered leader to deliver are looking at other options.
The Republican speaker met behind closed doors with his GOP colleagues for another day of grueling negotiations — arguing publicly that he still had time to win over hard-line conservatives but privately running out of options to keep the government funded before money runs out before the end of the month.
“It’s not September 30 — the game is not over,” McCarthy told reporters as he arrived at the Capitol.
But after a more than two hour evening meeting he had only inched closer to a resolution.
“We’re very close there,” McCarthy said. “I feel like I just got a little more movement to go there.”
Even if McCarthy is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible and unite his all-but-ungovernable House Republican majority around a conservative spending plan, the victory would be short-lived. The hard-right bill, with steep 8% cuts to many services, would be rejected by the Senate, where Democrats are in control but even Republicans reject the House GOP's severe reductions.
Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., opened the chamber trying to push ahead with its own bipartisan spending bills to kickstart the process, but even that ran into trouble from Republicans.
A Senate test vote on a popular bipartisan package of defense and military appropriations bills was turned back after opposition from GOP senators, as some are joining House Republicans in fighting for steeper reductions.
"It’s yet another reminder that in both houses, a small group of hard-right Republicans are dead set to grind the gears of government to a halt," Schumer said.
In defiance of the speaker, a group of five GOP lawmakers from the right-wing House Freedom Caucus joined with Democrats to prevent consideration Tuesday of a usually popular defense bill. The bill would provide pay raises for the troops and other measures, but Republicans want a broader discussion on spending cuts in non-defense-related budgets.
McCarthy set up a do-over vote for Thursday as he tries for a third time to advance the defense bill after winning over two of the hard-right Republicans who were holding out for a commitment from the speaker on spending cuts elsewhere.
The House floor is essentially at a standstill, with no business related to the looming government shutdown being conducted, as McCarthy tries to regroup. He has warned lawmakers that they will stay in session this weekend to finish the job.
The speaker had hoped to rally Republicans around a stopgap bill, called a continuing resolution, or CR, that would fund the government for the next month as talks continue. The temporary bill would accomplish some of the conservatives' goals — by slashing many government services 8%, while sparing defense and veterans accounts.
The package McCarthy is trying to push through the House also proposes a long list of conservative policies for immigration and border security that are widely embraced by Republicans.
But the conservative holdouts also want McCarthy to commit to keeping the funding cuts in place longer, for the full year, as budget talks continue with the Senate.
During the lengthy dinnertime meeting in the Capitol basement, McCarthy offered to meet the conservative holdouts partway, vowing he would fight for a lower overall spending level in the subsequent bills.
But that still wasn't enough for some. One key conservative, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, stood up and warned the room that at least seven Republicans would oppose the continuing resolution, according to those familiar with the private meeting. That's enough to deny passage.
Among others still opposed to the stopgap measure, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said afterward she too would vote against it.
Commanding only a slim House majority, McCarthy needs almost every Republican on board to pass any conservative bills over the objections of Democrats.
“It’s a tough job and keeping all of these members appeased is next to impossible," said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark.
About McCarthy, he said, "He’s doing the best he can, but we have to give him a hand to play.”
As the Republican lawmakers were fighting among themselves for another day in the Capitol, others reached across the aisle to Democrats to try come up with a bipartisan solution.
Two centrist groups, the New Democratic Coalition and the Republican Governance Group, are having their own conversations on how to solve this impasse, according to a person familiar with the talks who insisted on anonymity to discuss them. Their groups together make up 145 members.
Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., who chairs the New Democratic Coalition, said on Tuesday she was hoping that a coalition of “roughly an equal number” of Republicans and Democrats would emerge to support a continuing resolution.
“These are the people that are making public statements that a shutdown is not good for the country,” she said.
And members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus of Republicans and Democrats are also in talks to develop a framework that would fund the government for several months, into 2024, while budget talks continue, according to a person familiar with the private negotiations and granted anonymity to discuss them.
Also at stake is President Joe Biden’s request to provide an additional $24 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine in its war with Russia that some lawmakers want to add to the must-pass bills needed to fund the U.S. government.
Meanwhile in the Senate, a robust bipartisan group of senators was had been trying to show strength as they prepare to negotiate with the House on government funding. But the Senate's effort to advance the bill fell short again Wednesday as Republicans dug in for a fight.
It's not the only Senate fight as senators are reeling from Schumer's decision to do away with the chamber's stuffy dress code, in a nod to Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who has preferred wearing casual clothes while working to recover from a stroke and depression.
Fetterman on Wednesday upped the ante: “If those jagoffs in the House stop trying to shut our government down, and fully support Ukraine, then I will save democracy by wearing a suit on the Senate floor next week,” he said in a statement.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Mary Clare Jalonick and Farnoush Amiri contributed reporting.