Update 725 — Saturday’s Surprise: Shutdown Averted in the Final Hour

Even close observers were surprised to learn that Speaker Kevin McCarthy had pivoted overnight on Friday from acquiescing to draconian demands from the Freedom Caucus to his right to offering a bipartisan proposal to keep the government open without changing fiscal or any policy. Who would have predicted that the Speaker would be so willing to risk his job?

The budget saga is far from over. Can the same be said for McCarthy’s Speakership? We briefly reprise the events of Saturday and the immediate policy and political consequences.

We also note the appointment of Laphonza Butler, President of Emily’s List, to fill the Senate seat of the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, announced yesterday by California Governor Gavin Newsom, keeping the Democratic Senate majority at 51-49. 



Shutdown Averted with Minutes to Spare

With three hours to go before the end of the 2023 fiscal year on Saturday night, the Senate voted 88-9 to support a 48-day continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government funded, which was adopted by the House in a 335-91 vote that afternoon. The White House announced that President Biden signed the 71-page measure with less than an hour to go before the midnight deadline, averting a government shutdown, for now.

The CR required a two-thirds vote in the House, under special rules. The votes ultimately carried, with a majority of House and Senate Democrats and Republicans in support. The fractious House GOP conference voted in favor of the CR 126-90, with five members not voting.

Starting around 11 pm Friday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)’s whip operation started placing calls and having conversations with the rank and file in the conference to gauge and urge support for a clean bipartisan CR. The calls ran into Saturday morning, with McCarthy observing the Hastert rule, waiting until he had a majority of Republicans before proposing the measure to Democrats.

By 7 am on Saturday, the Speaker hadn’t secured majority support in his conference and reportedly hadn’t spoken with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to see how many Democratic votes he could count on. But at 9:30 am, McCarthy released the text of his proposal and convened an executive session of the conference. It was clear that moderates and GOP members in Biden-won and purple districts would support the proposal. 

Members of Congress arrived for votes on Saturday with no reason to expect that Speaker McCarthy would heed Democratic colleagues and produce a viable CR. McCarthy offered the proposal late Saturday morning, leaving members little time to consider it before the floor vote. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) then withdrew the continuing resolution that the Senate had been pushing forward before the House voted, and six hours later, it voted in and passed the McCarthy proposal.

Hundreds of policy riders included in previously proposed continuing resolutions did not make it into the final CR, including:

  • Across the board domestic spending cuts
  • Adjustments to border security provisions
  • Assistance for Ukraine 

The following provisions notably made it into the final text: 

  • $16 billion in emergency disaster funding
  • An extension of a federal flood insurance program
  • Authorization of the Federal Aviation Administration 

Republicans in Congress largely ignored the call by former president Donald Trump on his social media site last week to shut the government down unless every one of their demands were met. 

Motion to Vacate in Wake of Vote

McCarthy’s reversal of course and concessions to Democrats leave him vulnerable to a motion to vacate (MTV), which would remove him as Speaker. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), is among a handful of members of Congress that have suggested that a motion to vacate is on the table, stating that he intends to file such a motion this week. House GOP members’ 126-90 vote to pass the CR on Saturday, suggesting that McCarthy could survive a vote on such a motion.

The test case for McCarthy on the budget comes as Congress returns to the task of trying to enact the twelve FY24 appropriations bills, or another CR, that must be passed by November 17 if a shutdown is again to be avoided. He is on record supporting the demands of the Freedom Caucus in the few appropriations bills the House has voted on to date but which would not secure enough Democratic, let alone Senate votes. 

But that will likely wait until the House disposes of the challenge to McCarthy’s leadership. A motion to vacate the office of the Speaker has not come up for a House vote since 1910, and it has never succeeded. If McCarthy were removed, the House would have no authority to vote on spending bills, a CR, or enact legislation, attend to any other business or function at all until a Speaker is elected. The impeachment inquiry would be obviated. The chaos witnessed during the 15 rounds of voting in January before McCarthy secured a majority would return.

Can McCarthy rely once again on Democrats to bail him out in the case of a motion to vacate vote? Probably not while continuing to effectively serve as Republican leader, given the policy prices or power-sharing agreement that Democrats will likely demand in exchange, including an end to the GOP’s impeachment inquiry into President Biden, demands that House Democratic Whip Katherine Clark (D-MA) has made clear. Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) went on record saying McCarthy would need to agree to a power-sharing agreement with adjusted committee ratios for Democrats to support McCarthy in a motion to vacate.

Several Democrats have expressed positions regarding Gaetz’s vacate plan. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has stated that she does not plan to support McCarthy, highlighting his tenuous leadership position and underscoring the need for McCarthy to provide motivation for Democrats to support him. 

House Leadership, Budget Fights Ahead

Rep. Gaetz could bring a motion to vacate against McCarthy as early as today, when the House returns to session. Under rules agreed to in January, House leadership would be required to set a vote on the motion within two legislative days. The House could move to procedural measures, moving to table the MTV or refer it to a committee, which would keep members from having to go on record on the MTV.

For the moment, Democrats in Congress can breathe a sigh of relief that the demands of the Freedom Caucus to slash domestic spending by hundreds of billions of dollars, imperiling WIC, SNAP, Headstart, and limiting women’s access to full healthcare services have been avoided. Millions of government workers, including two million members of the military, will not forgo their paychecks. A blow to the nation’s credit rating that a shutdown threatened is also in abeyance. But we are likely to see this movie again in the weeks until November 17.