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McCarthy’s Speaker Drama Might Scare Congress Into Actually Funding the Government

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Sometimes, the coda tacked onto the end of a sentence does all of the work.

“No drama, no gridlock, no government shutdown this week,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday evening as voting began on a stopgap government spending bill that keeps the lights on for another week. The “this week” bit was the most crucial as Schumer and his allies let out a sigh of relief that they had bought themselves until Dec. 23 to hammer out a broader spending bill—and, even then, things were far from certain.

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Congress seems to be in a perpetual tailspin, lurching from crisis to crisis while creating deadlines designed to spark chaos. Lawmakers have kept spending levels steady since the current fiscal year began on Oct. 1. That autopilot will now stretch until two days before Christmas, giving the lead budget negotiators another week to craft a package funding the government through September. The two parties remain far apart on domestic priorities, and, despite the season, there’s not exactly a reserve of goodwill on Capitol Hill.

Still, two major factors may help nudge both sides to accept a deal that in other times might have been chucked into the trash: the outgoing and the incoming. Senators Pat Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, are in their final days as the chairman and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee before retiring in January. For each, this is a legacy-polishing package and their last vehicle for trinkets for themselves and other retiring pals. Leahy and Shelby are regarded as scrupulous spenders with some of the most talented staffers in D.C. They know how to navigate appropriations through Capitol Hill, and this is their final hurrah with a firehose of tax dollars.

Then, there’s what comes next. The incoming duo atop Senate Appropriations—Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Susan Collins of Maine—are equally as serious as legislators. While some Republicans privately fret Collins may be too quick to compromise, they still see her as a reliable check against runaway spending that can cascade out of that committee. Across the Capitol, another pair of women will guide appropriations in the new Congress: Rep. Kay Granger of Texas is as tough as they come, and her Democratic counterpart, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, knows the ledger as well as anyone on the Hill.

But no matter how much the four lead appropriators have their ducks in a row, things can still grind to a standstill if a House Speaker lacks a firm grasp of the chamber. And that’s what some fear the situation will be with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s replacement, presumed to be Republican Kevin McCarthy. The California lawmaker is facing a fractured caucus in the House and a narrow majority that could evaporate with even a handful of defections. His own elevation as Speaker is far from certain, and just this week he pushed pause on conference-wide elections for leadership slots—essentially telling his fellow Republicans that they need to put him in place before considering their own spot in the pecking order. The result is that Congress will start very sluggishly next year, committee chairs won’t know how many aides they can hire, or Hill staffers could end up with hiccups in their HR files that could trigger anything from student-loan repayments to loss of credit on retirement accounts.

Then there’s the raw math that is gumming up McCarthy’s hopes. Republicans have a four-seat majority right now. At present, there are five avowed NeverKevins in his ranks.

Even if McCarthy is successful in January in grabbing the gavel, a rowdy group of rebels could steal it back. McCarthy’s aides now are in a game of chicken with others, trying to negotiate the terms by which he may allow his critics to topple him even before he gets the gig. Granger is expected to be a steady chair of the powerful House spending panel, but she alone won’t be sufficient to defend McCarthy’s hold on broader spending power. And that dynamic is spilling over into the current spending talks, with many Republicans on both sides of the Capitol considering the prospect of a fringe uprising in the House early next year.

Put another way: Republicans may more aggressively chase a deal now to buy McCarthy some time—nine months, really—to get his sea legs before having to deal with a massive spending crunch. Some suspect he will need that cushion. There isn’t exactly a reservoir of warm, fuzzy feelings for McCarthy within his party. A Monmouth University poll from this month finds over half of Republicans have no opinion about McCarthy, and those who do have a view of him have only a slightly favorable tilt toward him. McCarthy’s net favorables among Republicans are just nine points—far from the net 59 points Pelsoi enjoys among her fellow Democrats. Simply stated, McCarthy isn’t starting with a ton of juice, and, unlike Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, he doesn’t command his caucus in a way that leaves him impervious to sour polling.

All of which is to suggest that lawmakers of all stripes may not love the spending package making its way through Washington right now. But the prospects of the alternative—new appropriators, perpetual threats to a McCarthy speakership, uncertainty in the GOP’s mood—might be enough of an incentive to take what’s on the table, if only to buy nine months of predictability, or at least as close to predictable as is to be found in Washington these days. After all, avoiding a crisis this week is sometimes plenty to celebrate on its own.

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