Tensions flare inside House GOP as moderates explore new plan to avoid government shutdown

Sep 19, 2023, 7:30 AM

Byron Donalds, Matt Gaetz, Kevin McCarthy, and Victoria Spartz are pictured here. Photo credit: Get...

Byron Donalds, Matt Gaetz, Kevin McCarthy, and Victoria Spartz are pictured here. Photo credit: Getty Images

(CNN) — Tensions are flaring inside the House Republican conference as it barrels toward a government shutdown, with the infighting spilling out into public view and growing increasingly nasty.

“This is stupidity,” New York Rep. Mike Lawler said of GOP hardliners’ demands on spending, prompting the Republican freshman to privately float a new plan to work with Democrats and force a vote keeping the government open past September 30.

At the center of much of the drama: Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, attacking Speaker Kevin McCarthy in personal terms. But he’s also engaged in social media spats with fellow hardline conservatives who helped broker a House GOP plan to fund the government first revealed on Sunday evening.

Rep. Byron Donalds, also a Florida Republican, shot back at Gaetz’s criticism of the plan, writing on social media: “Matt, tell the people the truth. … What’s your plan to get the votes to defund Jack Smith? You’ll need more than tweets and hot takes!!”

Rep. Chip Roy, a conservative from Texas who helped reach the deal, also slammed hardliners’ opposition, saying on a conservative radio show: “I don’t know whether we’ll have the votes or not, because I’ve got a lot of conservative friends who like to beat their chests and thump around going, ‘Oh, this isn’t pure enough.’ “

Even if the plan passed the House, it would most likely be dead on arrival in the Democratically controlled Senate. But McCarthy will need support from virtually all of his conference in order to pass the brokered deal through the narrowly divided House. McCarthy can only afford to lose four GOP votes on a continuing resolution deal without relying on Democrats.

Meanwhile, Rep. Victoria Spartz, an Indiana Republican, put out a statement Monday blasting McCarthy as “weak” and saying they need party leadership who wants to fight for the country, not just fight for “power and a picture on the wall.”

McCarthy, in response, told reporters: “One thing I learned in life: anybody who criticizes you has never worked harder than you. If Victoria is concerned about fighting stronger I wish she would run again and not quit. I mean, I’m not quitting. I’m going to continue work for the American public.”

Spartz, who previously announced she will not seek reelection, responded on social media Monday evening: “I wish @SpeakerMcCarthy would work as hard at governing our country as he does at collecting checks but his wish might come true.”

Gaetz also went on social media and called McCarthy’s comments “disgraceful” and accused the speaker of “attacking” women.

Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has also been forceful in pushing back on her GOP colleagues who are supporting the government funding plan. She posted a lengthy video refuting Donalds, who called Greene’s understanding of the bill “wrong.”

Greene also blasted out inflammatory social media posts – and “Shrek” memes – to lambast support for Ukraine funding and criticized her colleagues who wore Ukraine pins to show support for the war-torn nation. Gaetz, too, seemed to mock McCarthy for wearing a Ukraine pin by posting a picture of the speaker wearing one, which was then shared by Rep. Eli Crane, a conservative Arizona Republican.

And the ongoing feud between Gaetz and Rep. Dave Joyce continued Monday, with the moderate Ohio Republican calling Gaetz “a special person.”

“I mean, in the how many years he’s been here, what has he ever accomplished other than running his mouth?” Joyce told reporters as he exited McCarthy’s office.

The feud began when Joyce criticized past shutdowns on CNN, saying they did not work out well, and Gaetz took to social media to rail against Joyce’s campaign donations.

The messy infighting shows the challenge McCarthy is facing as he works to wrangle the votes to avoid a government shutdown, protect his speakership, and deal with the tricky optics of Ukraine funding while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits Capitol Hill this week.

Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Arkansas, summed up the situation on NBC’s “MTP Daily” on Monday: “It’s an unmitigated disaster right now on the majority side.”

Donalds, weighing in on the infighting, told reporters as he left a meeting in McCarthy’s office that “Politics, it can get brutal sometimes. That’s just part of it.”

“But you know, that’s why I have Kevlar skin. I don’t have thick skin, it’s Kevlar,” said Donalds, wearing a pair of black aviator sunglasses indoors. “So, if you want to bring the attacks, bring it on. I’m ready.”

Tensions have been boiling over since Republicans returned from a six-week recess. Gaetz had taken his criticism of McCarthy to the House floor threatening to oust the California Republican from his speakership, using a process called the motion to vacate. McCarthy had a heated closed-door conference meeting last Thursday, daring his critics to proceed.

“Move the f***ing motion,” he said, according to four sources in the room.

On Monday evening, McCarthy sounded a more optimistic tone after meeting with Republican factions of his conference, colloquially referred to around Capitol Hill as “the five families.”

“I’m always more confident! Life is good,” McCarthy told reporters when asked if he feels more confident after the meeting.

Backup plan to avoid government shutdown

As frustrations – and the prospect of a government shutdown – rise, some Republicans are exploring a Plan B.

Moderate Republicans are privately discussing teaming up with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown if the House GOP plan to temporarily fund the government fails on the floor this week, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions.

The idea was raised during multiple leadership meetings in the Capitol Monday evening. During a House GOP whip’s meeting, sources said Lawler told colleagues he is willing to support a so-called discharge petition – a procedural mechanism to force a floor vote on a bill and circumvent leadership – to move a short-term spending bill if the Republican plan stalls.

And during a meeting in McCarthy’s office with elected members of leadership, Rep. Andrew Garbarino, another New York Republican, said there’s a group of members talking about moving a temporary funding bill with Democrats if other members are unwilling to act, sources said.

Lawler has aired his frustrations with his hardline colleagues who are opposing the plan to fund the government for one month, calling it a “clown show.”

“I wouldn’t even call them on my right flank. This is not conservative Republicanism. This is stupidity. The idea we are going to shut the government down when we don’t control the Senate, we don’t control the White House,” Lawler said.

“I was elected to govern. That is what I am going to do. So, if some of my colleagues choose to put their own interests above the country, then I will do what needs to be done to make sure the government does what it needs to function and is funded.”

A discharge petition, however, would take time to move through the House and it’s unclear whether it could succeed before the government funding deadline at the end of the month. If all Democrats sign on to the petition, it would take just five Republicans at the moment to join forces for the effort to succeed.

Sources said the idea is also being discussed among top Democrats.

The House Problem Solvers Caucus has been working on an outline for a bipartisan plan to fund the government that would temporarily extend current spending levels and also would include disaster aid, Ukraine funding and some border security provisions, per a source a familiar with the talks.

The idea is expected to be presented at Tuesday’s Problem Solvers Caucus meeting, and the group, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, could take an official position on it.

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Tensions flare inside House GOP as moderates explore new plan to avoid government shutdown