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As shutdown looms, House Speaker McCarthy struggles with right-wing holdouts

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Four days remain before a government shutdown and the House of Representatives has yet to pass either short term spending bills or long term ones. Earlier this morning, we heard from NPR's Susan Davis, who told us a handful of House Republicans have blocked the whole process. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has gone along, so the minority rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: The vast majority of lawmakers on Capitol Hill do not want to be in the shutdown scenario. But doing so for McCarthy also opens up a very real risk that a member from the far right, most likely Matt Gaetz of Florida because he's been the loudest on this, would try to introduce a resolution to throw him out of the speakership if he aligns himself with Democrats to try to pass these spending bills or even a stopgap.

INSKEEP: Based on what you said, are we really heading for a shutdown because Kevin McCarthy wants to keep his job?

DAVIS: You know, I can't presume how he navigates out of this, but it is absolutely true that Congress has got itself into this point because of leadership decisions he has made.

INSKEEP: Does that make any sense? Matthew Green of Catholic University wrote a book about House speakers called "Speaker Of The House," and he's in Studio 31 this morning. Good morning.

MATTHEW GREEN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by. Is that the way that you see McCarthy's dilemma? He's doing all of this because he wants to stay employed?

GREEN: Well, I think that's certainly part of it. McCarthy likes being speaker. He waited a long time to become speaker. And he needs the support of the House and certainly his party in order to stay in the job.

INSKEEP: That sounds really selfish when I say it that way, but I want to offer the opportunity to look at it differently. Is there a case to be made that it is good for America for Kevin McCarthy to preserve himself because he has sometimes been useful to the country and would be less disruptive than somebody else who might try to be speaker?

GREEN: That's one way of putting it, sure. I mean, you know, Kevin McCarthy, certainly, you know, there's folks who've criticized him, particularly on the left. And, you know, one could argue maybe there might be better folks to be speaker. On the other hand, there could be less ideal candidates. And so, you know, one could argue this is not the best way to resolve a leadership battle, is to have a potential government shutdown. But in some ways, this is also part and parcel of congressional politics.

INSKEEP: I'm curious about how this would work. Let's say that Matt Gaetz goes ahead and introduces this resolution, which Kevin McCarthy has dared him to do. Introduce the resolution, see if you can get the votes to oust me. Does everything in the House come to a halt until they resolve that, meaning the government would, in fact, shut down? Or could they deal with the government issue first and deal with their leadership squabbles later?

GREEN: It's a good question. And we've never been in a situation like this where the House would vote on whether or not to declare the speakership vacant while there's a government shutdown. Presumably, the House could find a way to sort both of those out. My guess would be that we would deal with them in seriatim (ph), so first would be one and then the other. And most likely, we deal with the budget matters first before we had a battle over the speakership.

INSKEEP: So McCarthy could decide, I'm going to lose my job, but we're going to keep the government open. We're going to pass some spending bills, and we'll find out if I lose my job afterward. He could make that decision?

GREEN: He could do that, right. In a way, he already did that, as you mentioned, by daring Matt Gaetz to offer this resolution to declare the speakership vacant. And it hasn't happened. And so my guess is that what's going to happen first is they're going to work out this budget situation. And then if Matt Gaetz and his allies feel that McCarthy has somehow not represented them properly, then they would seriously consider an attempt to remove him.

INSKEEP: How have past speakers not been in this exact position before, because certainly there have been reluctant lawmakers or unhappy lawmakers in the past?

GREEN: So what the Republican Party has in the House right now, which is very unusual, are two things. One, they have a very small majority, so it only takes a handful of Republicans to vote against their party on a partisan vote in order for Republicans to lose on the floor. The other thing that they have - and they've had this for some time - is a group of members who are more disdainful of party loyalty, who have very strong conservative preferences and are willing to break norms. So offering a resolution like this, normally, you just wouldn't do. But for these folks, it's something that's perfectly appropriate.

INSKEEP: Didn't the past several Republican speakers also weaken the power of the House leadership?

GREEN: Well, actually, what's happened since the election of Newt Gingrich is that leadership in the House has become stronger...

INSKEEP: Oh.

GREEN: ...So starting with Newt Gingrich, who increasingly centralized power in the speakership and weakened committees. But what we've seen then is when you strengthen power and centralize it, then the focus becomes the speaker. And so if you're unhappy with the way the House runs, you think, well, maybe the speaker needs to be replaced.

INSKEEP: It's like a chess game. If I can just capture the king, everything else is going to go my way. That's the end of the whole thing. That's what you're saying?

GREEN: That's one way of putting it, yeah.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, do you see a way out of this?

GREEN: I do. I think McCarthy is trying to work out a complicated bargaining situation, and it may take some time. And yes, we may very well have one or more government shutdowns, but I think we can see a solution here.

INSKEEP: Matthew Green of Catholic University, author of a book on house speakers and another on Newt Gingrich, thanks so much.

GREEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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