Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s backers credit him for pulling a rabbit out of his hat to head off a debt ceiling impasse that could have crippled the U.S. economy, while still achieving some modest GOP policy wins.
But the fallout from the late May deal that McCarthy, R-Calif., cut with President Joe Biden is coming back to haunt him now as his party struggles to keep the government functioning beyond the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Unless McCarthy can pull off a “2.0 of what he did on the debt ceiling,” the government may be headed for a shutdown, a former close colleague says.
“The odds are increasing every day that there will be a shutdown,” former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in an interview.
McCarthy served as majority whip under Cantor and then-Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, from 2011 through mid-2014, a span that included one of the longest partial government shutdowns in U.S. history, lasting 16 days.
Cantor said that in forcing the White House to the bargaining table on the debt limit, McCarthy was able to secure spending limits in exchange for raising the borrowing cap.
“Kevin was really good at defining a victory and delivering on that victory through the debt ceiling,” said Cantor, who now serves as vice chairman and managing director at Moelis & Co., an investment bank. “He outmaneuvered the Democrats.”
Cantor resigned as majority leader July 31, 2014 and left Congress weeks later after ex-Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., defeated him in a stunning primary upset. Brat later lost to Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., in 2018.
Cantor said McCarthy could have “a game plan now that can reflect that sort of battle plan that he put in place last time . . . and do it on the funding level.” He said McCarthy would have to “outline what a win is and deliver.”
In order for that to work, Biden would have to come to the table and negotiate, and there have been no outward signs of either side approaching the other thus far.
“And obviously, you run up against a time clock here,” Cantor said, with the House scheduled to be in session for just a dozen days next month before funding expires. Accordingly, all the ingredients for another shutdown are there, he said.
“I think the likelihood is pretty good that we’ll see a standoff and the question will be how long will it take for the pain to get too high for that standoff to subside,” Cantor said.
In 2010, Cantor along with McCarthy and Paul D. Ryan, the Wisconsin lawmaker who would later succeed Boehner as speaker, made a splash with their book “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders.”
Cantor was styled “the leader,” Ryan “the thinker” and McCarthy “the strategist.” They argued in the book that the GOP had lost sight of its ideals and offered a plan for a “new road map back to the American dream.”
Later that year, Republicans captured control of the House.
The 2013 shutdown, stemming from GOP reluctance to fund the rollout of Obama’s health care law began Oct. 1 and lasted until the need to raise the debt limit broke the stalemate.
Congress cleared a Senate-brokered package that funded the government for three months and suspended the debt limit until early the next year. Only 87 out of 232 Republicans joined 198 Democrats in the House in support of the bill.
The political landscape then was similar in some ways to how it is now. Obama, a Democrat, was president, Democrats controlled the Senate, and Republicans had a majority in the House.
But there are notable differences, according to Cantor and former House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, a Democrat.
Both note that in 2013 House Republicans were united in a desire to defund Obama’s health care law.
“The issue back then was that, as a member of the House, you didn’t want to pass anything because you didn’t want to be accused of funding Obamacare,” Cantor said.
Yarmuth adds that the wave of “tea party” Republicans who swept into Congress in 2011 “were itching for a shutdown, they really wanted it. It was part of their mission, I think, to show that they were going to throw their weight around.”
The former Kentucky lawmaker, who retired after the 117th Congress, does not see that dynamic at work now. But he said with the slim majority that Republicans hold, even a small number could deny leadership the majority needed to pass a funding bill. The GOP can lose no more than four votes and still pass legislation without any support from Democrats.
Cantor said unlike the defining issue of defunding the health care law in 2013, House Republicans have not united behind a single driving message as to what they want in exchange for supporting a temporary funding measure before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Chip Roy, R-Texas, and some other members of the House Freedom Caucus want stronger border security measures enacted before they will vote for a stopgap bill. Others want to cut funding below the levels agreed to in the debt limit agreement, while some want to deny the Justice Department funding that would be used to prosecute former President Donald Trump in connection with his challenge of the 2020 election results.
Cantor said he could see 20 or 25 Republicans voting against a continuing resolution along with Roy. If that’s the case, he said, Democrats’ votes would be needed.
In 2013, Boehner resisted taking up a “clean” CR without any substantial restrictions on the health care law until the very end.
“I think McCarthy’s in a very similar position as Boehner was,” Yarmuth said. “I love John Boehner, don’t get me wrong. But he had a hard time controlling his stronger members. And Kevin obviously has had no success in doing it.”
Yarmuth bets McCarthy “would for a while go along with his Freedom Caucus people.”
Some Democratic lawmakers are worried about a shutdown, which they think may occur if Republicans offer a stopgap spending bill that cuts spending across the board rather than extending it at current levels. “I think we’re moving toward a shutdown,” House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said.
Some Republicans are concerned too. “I pray that we don’t go into that territory,” House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Steve Womack, R-Ark., said. “That is not what this country needs right now. It’s not what the GOP needs right now.”
But not all are.
“Most of the American people wouldn’t even miss it if the government is shut down temporarily,” Freedom Caucus member Bob Good, R-Va., said. “Our speaker has the opportunity to be a transformational, historical speaker that stared down the Democrats, that stared down the free spenders, that stared down the president and said ‘no, we’re going to do what the American people elected us to do.”
If there is a shutdown, Cantor said, there is little reason to think Republicans will accomplish their aims from it.
“Listen, we all know what happens with this, when you have a CR and you’re advocating changing the status quo through a CR,” he said. “I don’t recall a time that the side advocating the change ever wins. And so I think the same will be the case this time.”
Yarmuth is confident Democrats would prevail in the public relations war.
“The majority of people don’t want to see a reduction in government services, they don’t want to see parks closed, they don’t want to see those types of things happen,” he said.
Tolerance for pain
Cantor said lawmakers’ tolerance for shutdown pain has risen since 2013, as evidenced by the 2018-2019 shutdown, which lasted 35 days, making it the longest in history.
The partial government closure began Dec. 22 under Republican control of the White House and both chambers over Trump’s demand for border wall funding.
The government reopened after Trump and the Congress settled on a three-week stopgap measure, which did not include his requested border funding, and an agreement for House and Senate appropriators to work out a deal on Homeland Security spending.
“The more that the parties get dug in, the more difficult it is to come out” of a shutdown, Cantor said. But eventually, he added, the pain proves too hard to bear. “We all know what that is,” he said. “It’s clinical trials at NIH, it’s veterans administration benefits, it’s Social Security issues, it’s visa issues.”
Cantor chuckled when asked if he had learned anything from the 2013 shutdown that he did not know going into it.
“It’s always confounded me as to why — and maybe I knew this or maybe I didn’t. I lived through it. How do you go and execute on a plan where it’s just so poorly conceived that you have no exit strategy?” he said. “And there were a lot of people who were just fine doing that.”
Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.