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On Kevin McCarthy’s past and future

Speaker Kevin McCarthy spent the last few weeks loudly declaring that House Republicans wouldn’t pass any government funding bill that didn’t include huge spending cuts and tough new provisions to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

McCarthy then moved a government funding bill Saturday without huge spending cuts and provisions to secure the border.

Depending on where you sit, McCarthy is either the “adult in the room,” as he put it, or he’s a treasonous turncoat who continues to abandon his party in the pursuit of easy political victories, as his hardline GOP conservatives claim.

What’s been reinforced over the past few weeks — most acutely in the last few days — is that McCarthy is a speaker who controls only roughly 200 Republican votes. He has a healthy number of GOP lawmakers who are completely aligned with his tactics, strategies, policy and politics.

But McCarthy also has a hardcore group of roughly two dozen or so Republican colleagues who think he is leading the party astray. This hasn’t changed since January, when they made him walk over hot coals to become speaker. And it doesn’t look like it’s changing anytime soon.

Much of the angst and opposition to the California Republican is personal. Some of the disagreements are tactical. And others are born out of the refusal of much of the House Republican Conference to acknowledge the tough political realities of divided government — that the House is the only place under Republican control in town. And that GOP control is tenuous.

Let’s be real: McCarthy had a brutal few weeks. Twenty-one Republicans voted against his proposed CR on Friday, which included border-security provisions and spending cuts. He failed to pass the Agriculture spending bill. And lost the floor votes on two rules, an embarrassing setback. Given that opposition, McCarthy was stuck without the ability to move any stopgap funding bill with Republican votes only.

At different times, McCarthy sent signals he’d never put a clean CR on the floor, or he’d put a clean CR on the floor, or he’d amend any Senate-approved CR with a GOP border-security package bill. Two of these options would’ve guaranteed a shutdown.

In sum, House Republicans — led by McCarthy and his leadership — descended into chaos. McCarthy didn’t seem bothered. But his leadership team made it clear privately that it was he – and he alone – that was steering the ship.

Sitting in the GOP Conference meeting Saturday morning, with the members chirping and warring with each other, McCarthy made the final decision that he was going to put the clean CR on the floor. McCarthy signaled he might do so on Friday night. He decided to go ahead this morning, although there was a serious downside here.

McCarthy had said a shutdown was untenable. And he felt it would be easier to convince Democrats to help him pass a bill before the government shut down. It was a roll of the dice, as one McCarthy-world source told us, because they had no idea whether Democrats would back the bill.

McCarthy worked behind the scenes to convince GOP senators to abandon their bipartisan stopgap funding proposal — which included $6 billion for Ukraine — for the House’s bill. More on that in a second.

But with McCarthy’s “adult” decision comes potential peril for the California Republican. In the end, he pushed a bill that, while getting the majority of the GOP, also drew 90 no votes from his own party. It seems likely he’ll face a motion to vacate in the coming weeks. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is on CNN’s “State of the Union” tomorrow, so we’re sure to hear more then.

If there’s one thing to note, it’s that McCarthy has turned much more combative in his rhetoric against hardline conservatives including Gaetz. Whether that strategy is productive or not remains to be seen.

“If someone wants to make a motion against me, bring it,” McCarthy said after the CR passed. “There has to be an adult in the room. I am going to govern with what is the best for this country. … I’m going to be a conservative that gets things done for the American public, and whatever that holds, so be it.”

It may be a bit premature to count on Democrats to bail him out.

“As much as he’s a good guy,” one House Democrat told us, “we’re going to exact 1,000 pounds of flesh” to save him from being overthrown.

What’s next: On Ukraine, McCarthy is again vowing to pair changes to border policy with Ukraine aid. But with half of the House GOP opposed to Ukraine aid, this is going to be incredibly difficult.

House Democratic leaders put out a statement late Saturday calling on McCarthy to advance a bill to the House Floor for an up-or-down vote that supports Ukraine. We’ll see.

House Republicans will also spend the next 45 days trying to pass FY2024 appropriations bills that have no chance of becoming law. The best thing McCarthy can hope for is that the Senate will negotiate with the House, but those negotiations will be messy.

The Senate’s spending bills include tens of billions of dollars more in spending and none of the “culture war” provisions favored by House Republicans. Congress will be on the brink of a shutdown once again. This time, it will be just before Thanksgiving.

— Jake Sherman, Max Cohen and Mica Soellner

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