7 US lawmakers to watch in government shutdown talks

A US government shutdown is now a near-certainty, with House Republicans unable to even agree on their demands to continue funding federal operations, much less reach a deal with Democrats and President Joe Biden.

Hardline Republicans have rejected a deal the Republican-led House negotiated with Biden in May for US$1.59 trillion in discretionary spending in fiscal 2024, paving the way for wide swathes of the government to shut down for the fourth time in a decade.

Everything from economic data releases to food benefits may be suspended beginning on Sunday, and some 2.2 million government workers may be furloughed or forced to work without pay.

The average member of the American Federation of Government Employees earns between US$55,000 and US$65,000 a year, but thousands of hourly workers earn much less, about US$31,200 a year. These workers will all get back pay after the furlough or shutdown is over, but contract workers, who earn even less, are not eligible for back pay.

The ultimate resolution hinges on these seven lawmakers and how they navigate the complicated dynamics in the deeply fractured House.

The Contortionist

Kevin McCarthy, 58, has bent himself in uncomfortable ways to satisfy the conflicting demands of House Republicans’ divergent factions ever since becoming speaker in January.

His job security has always been precarious – it took an unprecedented 15 votes for him to win the speakership – but never more so than now. He overcame the doubts of many in Washington to strike a deal with Biden to avert a US default with his job intact, but conservative hardliners have intensified threats to overthrow him since then.

Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, speaking to the media on Wednesday. Photo: EPA-EFE

Yet the veteran California politician, a determined survivor, is the key to guiding his party to a shutdown resolution. A favourite phrase: “I won’t give up.”

A running gag line at the Capitol has been that McCarthy always dreamed of becoming a “former speaker”. If he loses even a handful of Republicans in this showdown, he may get that title sooner than he wants.

The Bomb Thrower

Matt Gaetz, 41, was one of the last holdouts to change sides in the dramatic speaker’s election, switching his vote to “present” only after McCarthy pleaded with him on the House floor. Gaetz has poked the speaker ever since, haranguing him in public and confronting him in closed-door meetings.

The Florida congressman has threatened to mount an overthrow if McCarthy does not satisfy hardliners’ demands, particularly deep spending cuts and immigration policy changes that are anathema to Democrats.

He is leading about 10 Republicans who say they will never vote for a short-term spending bill. In a narrow Republican Party majority, he has enough allies to wreak havoc.

US lawmaker Matt Gaetz wants Kevin McCarthy to satisfy hardliners’ demands, including deep spending cuts. Photo: AFP

A gifted and witty orator, Gaetz has set his sights on the Florida governor’s mansion and so he has little need to cultivate alliances with House leaders. He could be the man to take out McCarthy.

The Linchpin

Chip Roy, 51, an influential voice on fiscal issues among ultraconservatives, has repeatedly helped broker deals between hardliners and other Republicans. He is once again a key player in any shutdown resolution that brings along the far right.

The goateed Texan, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, helped negotiate the still-secret agreement between McCarthy and ultraconservatives that put the speaker in power. He also was a key architect of a temporary funding plan that brought his caucus together with the more moderate Republican Main Street Caucus.

He brings to the fight experience as Ted Cruz’s chief of staff when the Republican senator spearheaded a 2013 shutdown in a failed effort to stop Obamacare.

The Vulnerable Freshman

Mike Lawler, 37, is a leading counterweight to the all-or-nothing hardliner stands. He confronts a choice whether to break with his party and join Democrats to end a government shutdown, which he could do with as few as four other House Republicans.

He is one of 18 Republicans to represent areas Biden won in the presidential election, in Lawler’s case Hudson Valley suburbs north of New York City. Blowback from voters angered by Washington dysfunction endangers his re-election.

Lawler has lashed out at the far right’s “stuck on stupid” push for a shutdown. He could at any time join in a rarely used “discharge petition” to force a vote on a bipartisan funding measure in as few as nine days, which would demolish the Republican blockade of federal funding.

The Emissary

Stephanie Bice, 49, is a conduit between moderates, House leadership and conservatives. A leader of the Main Street Caucus, she negotiated with Roy on a temporary funding plan, although that proposal did not unify the Republican Party.

The Oklahoma Republican, who developed ties to McCarthy soon after her 2020 election, has worked to dissuade moderates from joining Democratic efforts to keep the government open. She represents a competitive Oklahoma City district.

Stephanie Bice has worked to dissuade moderates from joining Democratic efforts to keep the government open and has tried to focus the shutdown on border issues. Photo: via AFP

Like many pragmatic Republicans, Bice has tried to focus the shutdown fight on border issues instead of a panoply of demands. That, she calculates, would give the party more leverage against Democrats.

The Enforcer

Tom Emmer, 62, is the Republican whip, Congress-speak for the leader responsible for counting and delivering votes. That has not been easy in a fractious party with a razor-thin majority. But no one has a better sense of sentiment among the party’s backbenchers.

The gruff former hockey player and coach from Minnesota helped build the Republican majority in his prior job running the House GOP’s campaign apparatus.


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Now, lawmakers from every Republican faction stream through his first-floor Capitol office, to explain themselves or receive an explanation. He is keeping tabs on members’ resolve and is on alert for any signs of moderate defections.

Emmer’s promise to Republicans: “Everyone will be heard.”

The Lifeline

Hakeem Jeffries, 53, the Democratic House leader, spends his days delivering blows to McCarthy. The Brooklyn congressman can barely talk about the current showdown without contemptuously branding it “an extreme MAGA Republican shutdown”, referring to the Make America Great Again movement.

Yet Jeffries maintains a cordial relationship with McCarthy and could be his lifeline.

There is talk Jeffries could find enough Democratic votes to rescue McCarthy from an ouster attempt if the speaker agrees to a bipartisan funding deal. But Jeffries remains coy: “We’ll just have to cross that bridge, if and when we get to it.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

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