House Republicans Are Hurtling Toward the Most Pointless Shutdown Ever

Biden on the picket line and Republicans in disarray. A tale of two parties.

This article was originally published as a newsletter from Ryan Grim. Sign up to get the next one in your inbox.

In a rather striking split screen today, Joe Biden became the first president ever to walk a union picket line, grabbing a bullhorn and using the word “we” to rally striking autoworkers. His Federal Trade Commission teamed with 17 attorneys general to sue Amazon for unfair competition (which was fun to see Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post report). And the FCC, finally under the control of Democratic commissioners, announced it would be moving to restore net neutrality rules undone by Trump. 

Over on the Republican side, the House GOP continued barreling toward a government shutdown over … what exactly? “Madam Speaker, forgive me, but what the hell is going on here?” wondered Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern from the House floor this evening. And Trump will be skipping Wednesday’s Republican debate to speak at a non-union auto parts company that has nothing to do with the UAW strikes against the Big Three. 

It’s a tale of two parties taking unusually divergent governance paths. 

It’s not all rosy for Democrats, of course. The dam broke for New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, with more than 20 of his colleagues and counting calling for him to resign after being indicted for over-the-top levels of corruption — while interestingly not a single Republican senator has done so. He’s holding out for one simple reason: His number one goal at this point is not re-election, it’s staying out of prison. One thing he can offer prosecutors is resigning. The Justice Department, when it targets politicians, often offers reduced sentences or no prison time in exchange for stepping down. Resigning now would be giving up that card for nothing. (Menendez is one of the most hawkish supporters of Israel in the party, and AIPAC is standing by him.)

We’re headed for a government shutdown on Saturday, September 30, for no reason at all. Indeed it’s hard to think of a single person who could benefit from one, except, perhaps, someone facing a few federal indictments and hoping to drag out their trials beyond the coming election. For that person, you can see an upside in a shutdown. 

Republicans spent Tuesday evening jawing at each other. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the Republican firebrands leading the shutdown charge, to his credit, had the night’s best joke, saying that federal spending had so devalued the dollar that you need gold bars to bribe Democratic senators now. He also lashed out at Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Twitter, calling him “pathetic” for a paid advocacy campaign Gaetz said attempted to pay Republican influencers to trash-talk Gaetz and his shutdown effort. McCarthy issued a cease-and-desist order to a consulting firm, which appears to be — or is accused of being? — Democratic. What a mess.

I don’t think people quite have a grasp of how thoroughly absurd the Republican position is on a government shutdown, and I’m not speaking from a partisan perspective, or saying that I disagree with their approach. What I’m saying is that it’s just completely insane. 

To put it simply, Republicans previously agreed to a very specific deal to fund the government, have not made any serious demands or proposed any way forward that would keep the government open, yet they are still pushing for a shutdown. When I read that sentence back to myself, it sounds unusually partisan, but it’s just the simple truth, and I don’t see any other way to say it honestly. 

They can’t even pass a bill through their own chamber, the House, that would fund the government. They’re not even proposing big changes to federal spending, because they already took that off the table during Biden’s State of the Union.

At least when Trump shut the government down in 2018 he had an actual demand: money for his border wall. (He eventually caved, got no money, and built some of the wall illegally anyway, by moving money from other places.) 

Taking a close look at the legislative situation really reveals how absurd it is. Let’s run through it quickly.

Perhaps it seems like too long ago, but this whole thing was already worked out in May. Biden and McCarthy, as you’ll recall, sat down to craft a deal to avert a default and a global financial crisis. 

The deal was straightforward and announced publicly: The debt ceiling would be lifted until January 2025 (so a lame duck Congress can lift it again). Discretionary and military spending for the next fiscal year would be capped at $1.59 trillion: $886 billion for the war-making folks and $704 billion for the rest. Cuts to spending for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and veterans benefits were off limits, because Biden had boxed Republicans in when they all hooted and hollered at him during his State of the Union. 

So all of this has already been hashed out. As Hank Williams Jr. would put it, “It’s all over but the crying.” 

The holdouts are calling for budget numbers several hundred billion below what was already agreed on, which is fine — that’s their right — but it doesn’t mean anybody should listen to them. Today McCarthy suggested he needs another meeting with Biden, which the White House quickly rejected, noting they already cut a deal and his problem is with Matt Gaetz and that crew, not with the White House. AOC suggested McCarthy be told to go “pound sand,” which is one of my favorite cliches.  

How This Is Completely on Republicans

There are only a few different ways to fund the government: 

  1. You can do it the way Congress was designed to work but doesn’t: by passing a dozen individual spending bills through the House and the Senate and having the president sign them. How quaint. That hasn’t happened since 1996. 
  1. Then there is a CR, or a “continuing resolution.” A CR essentially keeps things as they are until a certain date, though you can also have an amended CR that includes policy and spending changes.

That’s it. If you don’t pass one of those, the government shuts down. And there are enough Republicans opposed to each one of those pathways that none of them are viable. 

So Republicans are spending this week belatedly attempting option 1, passing all 12 appropriations bills. That’s impossible to do in this short amount of time, and the party is only going to try to actually pass four. It’s just for show, and if I were a betting man, I’d take the under. Maybe they can pass the defense bill. The homeland security one is a remote possibility. The next two — State & Foreign Ops and Agriculture — are going to be tougher. Late this evening, they passed a rule on the House floor that allows them to start debating those four bills. It got 216 Republican votes (Marjorie Taylor Greene voted no) and Republicans gave themselves an ovation on the floor, even though passing a rule is standard stuff. Nancy Pelosi never lost a rule vote in her entire tenure. 

Their next plan will be to draft a CR and stuff it full of right-wing priorities, such as dewokeifying the military, attaching symbolic border-related provisions, and slashing social spending. All of that is DOA in the Senate and not even a sure thing in the House. 

Each one of these votes is a trap for Republicans, because they’ll never be good enough for the most ardent conservatives and they’ll include draconian cuts and extreme social policy that will then be used against moderate Republicans running in Biden districts. 

Here’s how the Washington Post framed the latest proposed cuts: “Cutting housing subsidies for the poor by 33 percent as soaring rents drive a national affordability crisis. Forcing more than 1 million women and children onto the waitlist of a nutritional assistance program for poor mothers with young children. Reducing federal spending on home heating assistance for low-income families by more than 70 percent with energy prices high heading into the winter months.” 

That’s not just terrible for people, it’s terrible politics.

Once that theater is over, the only option will be a normal, clean, bipartisan CR. The Senate voted 77-19 (!) to move forward on a CR this evening to keep the government open another 47 days. But it includes some $6 billion for Ukraine, and House Republicans want to reject that outright.

Here is where McCarthy faces a choice. He can prevent the Senate bill, which has the support of Mitch McConnell and a host of Republicans, from coming to the floor. His right-wing rebels have said that if he passes it with Democratic votes, they’ll depose him. And they might, but A) they don’t have an alternative who could get 218 votes and B) Democrats could vote to save him which would be C) hilarious. 

The other option for House Republicans is to say that a spending bill supported by a majority of Senate Republicans is simply unacceptable, and so the government needs to shut down. 

There are other mechanisms a coalition of Democrats and Republicans could use to end the standoff, including either a discharge petition, defeating the previous question and seizing the floor (don’t worry about it), or temporarily ousting McCarthy and installing a caretaker speaker who puts the bill on the floor, lets it pass, then turns the gavel back to Republicans to fight over. Unlike in the Senate, in the House, where there’s the will of a majority, there really is a way. All of that will take time, though. 

Because the shutdown will be so obviously pinned on Republicans — Trump himself has demanded they do it, promising, absurdly, that Biden will get the blame — the thinking in Washington is that Democrats won’t help Republicans resolve their internal problems, preferring to let them burst into public display. 

So it’s all spectacle all the way down. Which, ultimately, is what Gaetz is after. This shootout inside the Republican Party is all about showing Trump and his supporters who’s willing to fight the hardest, regardless of whether any of it makes any sense even for them — and with the rest of the country caught in the crossfire. 

Join The Conversation