House returns as McCarthy, McConnell at odds in government shutdown battle

McConnell wants Congress to endorse the supplemental aid request for Ukraine.

September 12, 2023, 5:05 AM

As the House returns from recess Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is facing a new leadership showdown.

He's caught in the middle between a government shutdown threat from House Republican hard-liners demanding spending cuts, opposed to Ukraine aid and threatening to oust him if their demands aren't met -- and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who supports more Ukraine aid and opposes any shutdown.

The government funding battle this month promises to be perhaps the toughest test for McCarthy since he claimed the gavel in January following a weeklong fight to become speaker.

Unlike the standoff in June between McCarthy and President Joe Biden over raising the debt limit, this new battle will pit McCarthy against McConnell, his Senate Republican counterpart.

Kevin McCarthy, Speaker of the House of Representatives, attends the 21st G7 Speakers' Meeting in Tokyo, Sept. 8, 2023.
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

During the debt-limit fight, McConnell stood fully behind McCarthy, insisting that the debate was squarely between the speaker and the president, and promising to back whatever deal the two leaders struck. McConnell kept the Senate Republican Conference in lockstep over this position.

This time, though, McCarthy won't find full-fledged support from McConnell. The two are fundamentally at odds over Ukraine and disaster aid, a standoff that could lead to a government shutdown at month's end.

McConnell has reiterated several times on the Senate floor a need for Congress to endorse President Biden's supplemental aid request for Ukraine. While the Senate hasn't yet explicitly laid out the details, it's likely that Ukraine aid could be attached to a short-term funding bill to keep the government open past Sept. 30.

"Standing with our allies against Putin is directly and measurably strengthening the U.S. military," McConnell argued last week. "Growing the U.S. industrial base and supporting thousands of good-paying American jobs. The overwhelming majority of the money we have appropriated is being spent here in America."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., leaves a closed-door intelligence briefing on the war in Ukraine, at the Capitol, Sept. 7, 2023.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

But the administration's Ukraine-aid request is one of the things that McCarthy's far-right flank in the House is threatening to oppose a short-term stopgap measure over.

"We will oppose any blank check for Ukraine in any supplemental appropriations bill," the House Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-line conservatives, said in a statement in August.

McCarthy could likely pass a clean short-term funding bill on the House floor that includes Ukraine aid with the support of some House Democrats. But doing so would roil the House Freedom Caucus and other hard-line conservatives, who have the power to challenge McCarthy's leadership at any time after that far-right group pushed him into the position early this year only after he agreed to a list of their demands -- including the ability to call for a quick vote to remove him from office.

The speaker is also trying to appease hard-liners in his conference to stave-off a shutdown by saying he'll launch an impeachment inquiry into President Biden as soon as when the chamber comes back into session.

McCarthy maintains a shutdown would make it challenging for House Republicans to launch an impeachment inquiry against Biden or move forward with investigations into him and his family.

"If we shut down, all the government shuts it down, investigation and everything else. It hurts the American public," McCarthy said on Fox News in August.

Back from a "busy, busy, busy" recess, McCarthy spoke briefly in the Capitol Monday evening, saying he's not worried about his speakership as the government funding deadline approaches.

McCarthy said "not at all" when asked if he's worried about losing his speakership or GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz's public threats to bring a "motion to vacate" -- to force a vote on whether McCarthy should continue.

"He should go ahead and do it… Matt's, Matt," McCarthy dared.

"We got a lot of work -- we got a lot in September to do. We're gonna get our work done just as we've been doing," McCarthy added.

When asked if he will have to cut a deal with Democrats on a continuing resolution to keep the government open, McCarthy said, "You're already looking to a CR. I would like to get the work done … You're going to have to pass appropriations bills."

"We're not spending the type of money the Senate wants to spend. That's not going to happen. We're going to secure our border," he added.

The status of spending bills

The Senate is slowly beginning to work its way through its spending bills. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set the procedural wheels in motion to tee up votes on a package of three spending bills on the floor as soon as next week.

Those bills are expected to include amendment votes, something Schumer has touted as part of the bipartisan nature by which the Senate is considering its funding bills. Almost all the bills have received broad bipartisan support when they were worked through committee earlier this year.

PHOTO: The entrance to the House of Representatives on the East Front Plaza of the Capitol remains closed, Sept. 11, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
The entrance to the House of Representatives on the East Front Plaza of the Capitol remains closed, Sept. 11, 2023, in Washington, D.C. The House of Representatives is scheduled to return Tuesday following an almost six-week break and lawmakers have only a dozen legislative days left to come up with a budget compromise and avert a government shutdown.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It's a good first step that demonstrates the Senate's commitment to trying to work on appropriations bills through regular process. But this floor action in no way delays the Oct. 1 shutdown deadline. The three bills are some of the least controversial of the 12.

By the time they complete work on this small package, they could have as little as a week to negotiate a stopgap funding bill to keep the government open while further negotiations take place.

Meanwhile, the House has only cleared one of 12 appropriations bills and plans to take up one for the Defense Department this week. So far, House Democrats have voted against the GOP funding bills since the conference marked the bills at levels lower than the spending caps agreed to by McCarthy and Biden in the debt-limit deal in June.

Schumer and McConnell, in a relatively rare occurrence, agree that a short-term funding bill will be necessary to keep negotiations ongoing.