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US House speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters in Washington, the US, September 30 2023. Picture: KEN CEDENO/REUTERS
US House speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters in Washington, the US, September 30 2023. Picture: KEN CEDENO/REUTERS

Washington — The US narrowly dodged its fourth partial government shutdown in a decade on Sunday, but the past week exposed the depths of political dysfunction in Washington and particularly within the splintered House Republican caucus.

A last-minute decision by Republican House of Representatives speaker Kevin McCarthy to turn to Democrats to pass a short-term funding bill pushed the risk of shutdown to mid-November, meaning the federal government’s more than 4-million workers can count on continued pay cheques for now.

But the mere fact the government came within hours of shutting down — with former president Donald Trump cheering on the idea and just four months after the nation almost defaulted on its $31.4-trillion in debt — raises concerns about Congress’ ability to function.

“Congress is not looking very good,” said Sarah Binder, an expert on governance issues at the Brookings Institution think-tank. “Arguably, the one thing it has to do every year is pass laws that fund the government, and their inability to do any of them this year is just a ringing indictment.”

The near-shutdown is only the latest example of congressional malfunction.

Hardline conservatives have held up Senate action on hundreds of military promotions over abortion, shuttered the House floor for a week in June and subjected McCarthy to 15 humiliating floor votes before allowing his election in January. They may yet oust him for having compromised with Democrats.

And of course, less than three years have passed since January 6 2021, when thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in a failed bid to overturn his election loss to Democratic President Joe Biden. Trump is the clear favourite for the Republican nomination to challenge Biden in 2024.

A push to impeach Biden, led by Trump’s allies, has also fanned partisan anger and split the House majority with an inquiry that even some Republicans say has failed to produce tangible evidence of any wrongdoing by Biden.

‘No way to govern’

The partisan divisions between House and Senate make the 118th Congress unlikely to match the policy achievements of the last Congress, when Democratic majorities in both chambers enacted bipartisan bills on infrastructure, US technology and other issues.

Brinkmanship and polarisation have already spread beyond politics to threaten the US financial outlook. Credit ratings agency Moody’s warned last week that a shutdown would harm its Aaa rating for the US — the country’s last top rating.

“Hurtling from one fiscal cliff to the next is no way to govern. We never should have been in this position to begin with,” Democratic Representative Earl Blumenauer said.

The House and Senate have been on divergent paths on funding since McCarthy agreed to set fiscal 2024 spending at $1.59-trillion four months ago.

‘Dysfunction caucus’

House Republicans dissolved into infighting over hardliner demands for $120bn in cuts.

“The dysfunction caucus at work,” Republican Representative Don Bacon told reporters earlier in September, after hardliners blocked consideration of a defence appropriations bill that finally passed on Thursday.

Some moderate Republicans have likened that party infighting to TV soap operas, including the US series All My Children.

“The government is not a telenovela,” Republican Representative Monica De La Cruz of Texas said on Friday, expressing her frustration over Biden border policies and opposition to a failed Republican stopgap bill that included border restrictions.

Before Saturday, bitter political relations between parties, and within the Republican Party in particular, boiled over into ad hominem attacks, some directed at hardline Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, a prominent holdout on bipartisan funding who has threatened to move for McCarthy’s ouster.

“He’s not a conservative Republican. He’s a charlatan,” Representative Mike Lawler, a centrist Republican from New York, said of Gaetz after the failed Republican stopgap vote.

Gaetz responded in a podcast appearance: “I’ll get my blanket and curl up in a corner and call my therapist and see how to work through all the hurt feelings.”

Some House Republicans worry about personal rivalries and a general lack of trust within a 221-212 majority that can afford to lose no more than four Republican votes on legislation opposed by Democrats.

“That’s the part that nobody wants to talk about. There are a lot of personalities at play here, and multiple strategic objectives,” Republican Representative Kat Cammack told reporters.

Only one in three respondents to an August Reuters/Ipsos poll said they had a favourable view of the House or the Senate.

Of the majority leaders, McCarthy scored an approval rating of just 21% while Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer — the top Democrat in Congress — had a 26% approval rating.

Those ratings were well below the 40% of respondents in September who said they held a favourable view of either Biden or Trump.

Democrats view McCarthy as having wasted time presiding over chaos.

“The majority has demonstrated overwhelmingly, in the last several days and the last several months, an unwillingness to govern, an inability to govern, and chaos — general chaos,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

But many House Republicans directed their ire at the small group of hardliners that had opposed their own failed stopgap measure and its winning bipartisan successor, while complaining about the slow pace of progress on appropriations.

“There’s this sort of strange woulda-coulda-shoulda — appropriations should have just moved faster,” said Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw.


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