GOP’s House defense bill defeated

5 Republican ‘no’ votes sink McCarthy compromise deal

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., briefs reporters following a closed-door Republican Conference meeting on how to agree on a path to funding the government, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans voted against their own defense bill, 212-214, after five hard-right conservatives helped sink its chances of passing.

The latest House government funding proposal, a compromise between members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus and the more pragmatic Main Street conservatives, was almost dead on arrival, left sputtering even after Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy loaded it up with spending cuts and Republican priorities in a border security package. With time dwindling, Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to pass the broader government funding legislation and get a bill to President Joe Biden's desk to become law.

McCarthy simply walked off the House floor after the votes were cast. "Look, the one thing you're going to learn about me: I like a challenge -- I don't like this big a challenge -- but we're just gonna keep doing it until we can make it," McCarthy told reporters.

"The ball's in Kevin's court," said Republican Rep. Ralph Norman, S.C., of the Freedom Caucus. Behind closed doors Tuesday, the House speaker was trying to stress the political repercussions of a government shutdown to Republicans, warning them that no party wins with a closure.

Unlike last week when an angry and frustrated McCarthy unleashed foul language on his colleagues, he tried a different tack when addressing his members privately in the Capitol basement.

Appearing cool, calm and collected, McCarthy cast the funding plan as just a proposal and left time for rank-and-file members to debate, according to Republicans familiar with the meeting.

Still, one Republican after another rose to tell McCarthy that the current plan would not have their votes. With a slim majority, he needs almost every Republican on board.

Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., one of the negotiators for the Main Street group, urged her colleagues later to not let the "perfect be the enemy of the good." The showdown over the usually popular defense bill shows the difficulty ahead -- it was the second time McCarthy had tried to advance the measure, after he abruptly withdrew it from consideration last week.

The attempt to soothe tensions among Republicans comes as tempers are flaring and as big personalities try to seize the upper hand -- some trying to lead and others hoping to disrupt any plans for compromise.

Florida's two leading conservatives, Matt Gaetz and newcomer Byron Donalds, are sniping in the halls and across social media, as Gaetz criticizes the deal Donalds and others struck as insufficiently conservative.

And freshmen Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., pointedly attacked McCarthy as a "weak speaker."

Seasoned lawmaker Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., warned the infighting could derail the House GOP, much the way it did during the tenures of past speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Both retired earlier than expected amid constant threats of ousters.

Womack said he fears there is a "larger fight" brewing "that is more of a personality nature because of the conflict between certain members and the speaker." Womack and the other Republican representatives from Arkansas, Bruce Westerman, French Hill and Rick Crawford, all voted in favor of the potential defense bill. The month-long funding package that McCarthy is pushing would impose steep spending cuts of more than 8% on many government services, while sparing defense and veterans accounts. It would last for 31 days, giving House Republicans time to come to agreement and approve the more traditional government funding bills.

The White House issued a memo detailing cuts from the Republican plan, saying it would mean fewer border patrol agents, teacher aides in schools, Meals on Wheels for seniors and Head Start slots for children.

"Extreme House Republicans are playing partisan games with peoples' lives and marching our country toward a government shutdown," the White House said.

Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer warned of the steep cuts Republicans are planning with their "cruel" and "reckless" spending plan.

The roughly dozen Republicans who have voiced displeasure at McCarthy's proposal see the current impasse as a make-or-break moment to hold the speaker to commitments to drastically cut topline government spending.

"If my party is not going to stand up, what is the right thing to do?" said Spartz. "No matter how hard -- I don't think anyone else will."

Information for this article was contributed by Kevin Freking of The Associated Press.