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(CNN) -- The GOP's war on itself has turned its inoperative majority in the House of Representatives into a "clown show" and a "dysfunctional caucus" and is handing victories to the Chinese Communist Party, and that's just what some of its own members are saying about it.
Days of recriminations between far-right, moderates, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his nihilistic executioners reached a new fever pitch Tuesday in extraordinary scenes of partisan infighting on the south side of the U.S. Capitol.
The legislative train wreck made clear that more is now at stake than McCarthy's loss of control over a post he craved for years and the GOP's ability to fulfill the House's most basic function: setting a budget to run the country.
The Republican majority's charade of self-harm now appears to put America on a path hurtling toward a government shutdown ahead of the deadline for new federal funding late next week. This could mean furloughs for federal workers who provide basic services, that soldiers could go unpaid and the possibility of serious damage to an economy that can't afford any more blows if the stalemate drags on.
A shutdown — triggered by demands for massive spending cuts by hardline Republicans, who have no hope of forcing through the Senate or getting President Joe Biden to sign — could sour voters the slim House majority they gave Republicans in the midterm elections. More broadly, it could raise new questions about the ability of a polarized nation — with an increasingly extremist and performative Republican Party in the image and likeness of former President Donald Trump — to govern itself.
And the chaos could spread beyond the United States. Another failure Tuesday to pass a defense bill raised the possibility that political discord now and in the future could hamper U.S. readiness amid a challenge from a rising Chinese superpower. And the struggle for Ukraine's survival seems increasingly hostage to the unwillingness or inability of the House of Representatives to fund a new supply of arms and ammunition.
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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks after a meeting of the Republican caucus at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 19, 2023, in Washington. (Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
What is the confrontation?
McCarthy's team is still struggling to figure out how to pass a stopgap spending bill known as the continuity resolution, or CR, to keep the government open and buy more time to end a fierce internal dispute over demands for massive spending cuts by radicals. But the radicals could have the numbers to prevent the measure from even reaching the full House and demand more concessions.
"I don't know how they're going to get to 218," said South Carolina Republican Rep. Nancy Mace, referring to McCarthy's magic number to pass a bill, after leaving a conference meeting.
In Congress, chaos and unrest often reach their peak just before the fever breaks out and a creative solution emerges to shelve a problem weeks later. McCarthy hopes this will be the case, refusing to leave the RC. But the Republican majority is so slim — the House speaker can only lose four votes with his current margin — and the party is so bitterly divided that past experience can be a poor indicator of results. And for some of a small bloc at the extreme end of the pro-Trump conference, the chance to shut down a government that many of them despise could score points from grassroots voters and the former president and could be an end in itself.
Rep. Mike Simpson, a veteran member from Idaho, lamented the situation where recalcitrant members can hold the rest of the House hostage. He said it's "frustrating that this place doesn't work anymore."
Simpson added: "We are dragged by 20 people, but 200 of us agree. ... They want their way or the highway. And that's not how this government works."
Simpson's comment sums up both the reality of the tiny Republican majority and the fact that GOP radicals essentially reject the premise of divided constitutional government. They haven't garnered enough public support through elections to seize power — but they're trying to wield it anyway — an approach that threatens democracy but is in keeping with the character of much of their party in the Trump era.
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Could a union between Republicans and moderate Democrats save the day?
However, there is one possible solution that could avert the crisis: an incipient debate over a deal between several moderate House Republicans, whose seats are at risk in 2024, and Democrats, which would expand government funding and could even provide new aid to Ukraine.
A complex set of maneuvers could bring out of the House a spending bill that could be agreed to by a sufficient number of senators from both parties in the Democratic-led Senate. However, even this arcane response is a long shot. On the one hand, the use of the so-called discharge request would take time, as the clock time for closure is running out.
That means a compromise between Republicans and moderate Democrats might be a more viable option to end the shutdown than to avoid it. It would also require minority Democrats to decide to align themselves with Republican lawmakers from states like New York, whom they will target in their bid to regain the majority in 2024. So giving a victory to the critical Republicans on whom the majority of the GOP depends may be a bad strategy. And an alliance could also have the effect of rescuing McCarthy from a situation in which his conference seems incapable and dysfunctional and from which Democrats can profit.
On the other hand, Democrats could enjoy the optics of hijacking the House of Representatives and making the president look even weaker. Intrigue about possible revenge by moderates soared Tuesday after Republican Rep. Mike Lawler of an undecided New York district said he was open to working with Democrats.
"If the clown show of colleagues refusing to govern really doesn't want to pass the CR, I will do whatever it takes to make sure a CR passes," Lawler said.
"The bottom line is we're not going to shut down the government," he added.
Rep. Mike Lawler speaks on his way to a House Republican Conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 19, 2023, in Washington. (Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In a sign that Democrats are considering their options, their leader Hakeem Jeffries will meet Wednesday with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. The group has a bipartisan plan to fund the government by temporarily expanding current spending levels to include aid for recent national disasters, funding for Ukraine and some border security provisions. But, to underscore potential tensions within the Democratic Party over an eventual deal, the Congressional Progressive Caucus announced a meeting to discuss its perspective on budget negotiations.
The idea of a moderate revolt and bipartisan solutions from the political center has often been raised in times of hyperpartisan fury in Congress. They have rarely worked, for example, in the infrastructure program approved by President Joe Biden in a victory that eluded his predecessors. But such efforts often collapse into the logic of partisanship. Sometimes, they are used as a feint by party members to get the attention of the more radical members of their conference. And any decision by a handful of Republicans to part ways with McCarthy, who supported them with fundraising and advice in the midterm elections, would be tough, personally and politically. He could also turn them into persona non grata in his own congressional caucus.
"If moderate Republicans sign a petition to dismiss with Democrats, they will be signing their own political death warrant and handing it to their executioner, because it won't be me and conservatives hunting moderates," said Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, the GOP's most prominent critic of McCarthy. "It will be the Democrats themselves that they would be working with under that hypothesis."
And moderate Republicans will be weighed down by the risk that they could cost the House speaker his job. A bill passed in the House with Democratic votes could be the straw that breaks the camel's back for McCarthy's enemies and sparks a vote to unseat him.
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Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks on his way to a House Republican Conference meeting on Capitol Hill on September 19, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The House can't even fund the military
The plight of a House speaker with a slim majority and a rebellious conference in a party that rewards extreme agitation instead of legislating and governing was laid bare Tuesday when five conservative members scuppered an attempt to pass a defense bill loaded with GOP priorities. normally one of the easiest legislative tasks.
"They just gave the Chinese Communist Party a victory with this vote," Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, told CNN's Manu Raju.
Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, who represents a swing district for Biden, told reporters as he pointed toward the House floor, "The dysfunction caucus in action."
The bizarre circumstances of the House crisis were encapsulated during McCarthy's appearance before reporters on Tuesday, when tensions appeared to boil over when asked about aid to Ukraine, which Biden warned at the United Nations on Tuesday was critical to winning a war that would extend far beyond its current footprint amid Russian expansionism if the U.S. leaves Kyiv.
"Was Zelensky elected to Congress? Is he our president? I don't think so," McCarthy said, in a striking outburst against a U.S. ally fighting a war for his country's survival. Zelensky will be on Capitol Hill on Thursday, on a mission to shore up the aid his country desperately needs from the United States.
Even for a leader of a war zone constantly attacked by Russian drones and missiles, Washington's utter inability to govern itself may seem like runaway dysfunction.
Government ShutdownDemocratic PartyU.S. Politics