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McCarthy faces another leadership test as government funding talks heat up

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. House returns from recess today, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy is once again under pressure from all sides in his own party.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Congress has a lot to do. It needs to pass spending bills to avoid a government shutdown. President Biden wants more aid for Ukraine and disaster relief for states. And the most right-wing Republicans want McCarthy to resist the White House or risk his job.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, moderates in McCarthy's caucus worry he will give into the far right on spending levels and on greenlighting an impeachment inquiry into President Biden. So where does this internal fight leave the House GOP weeks away from a potential government shutdown? Politico's Sarah Ferris has been covering this story, and she's with us now. Good morning.

SARAH FERRIS: Good morning.

MARTIN: So government funding expires September 30. Congress needs to pass its spending bills before then, or the government would shut down. Just as briefly as you can, Sarah, what are the sticking points?

FERRIS: Well, there are plenty of them, but the biggest disagreement so far is that Republicans and Democrats have not decided on how much to actually spend. The hard-liners in the Republican conference want to cut over $100 billion from the spring's debt deal that McCarthy and Biden have already agreed to. But it's a lot more than that, though. A lot of these conservatives have had six weeks away from the Capitol to talk to each other, toughen their positions, and they say they haven't heard a whole lot from leadership.

MARTIN: Do the hard-line members - the most hard-line members have any specific or kind of bottom line, red line or whatever you want to call it?

FERRIS: Well, they want McCarthy to stand up to Democrats on spending, on border demands, on slashing money from the Department of Justice as it investigates former President Donald Trump. And they don't think that Republicans should fear a shutdown. And several of them told me that most people wouldn't notice if the government did shut down for a couple of days. And they're really not talking subtly about what will happen to McCarthy if he doesn't meet their expectations, which means they are willing to go after his job.

MARTIN: What do you think McCarthy thinks about all this?

FERRIS: Well, I've been covering spending for about nine years on Capitol Hill. I've never quite seen a situation this primed for a shutdown because there really is no way to keep the government open if you're refusing to work with Democrats. Some McCarthy supporters have even privately told us they think the only way out of this is by shutting down the government, showing the conservatives that he's willing to fight for them even if there is no clear path to reopening it.

MARTIN: But isn't there a cost to that for the Republicans and for McCarthy?

FERRIS: Of course. And I think most of the Republican conference knows that. Most of them have been here before, have seen these fights before, have lived through shutdowns and taken the blame for it. So a lot of those are ready for McCarthy to stand up to the hard-liners, not the Democrats. They're tired of being held hostage to this small group.

MARTIN: It took McCarthy 15 rounds of votes just to become speaker. How has he managed to hold on this long?

FERRIS: He's held on a lot longer than - even his critics have been pretty mystified at his ability to do so. I think he's someone who survives until tomorrow. This is what he's really good at. He has this persistence in winning over his critics. He has a lot of allies in the party that have kept him alive. And the question is whether this will continue through one of the biggest fights that we've seen this year.

MARTIN: That is Sarah Ferris of Politico. Sarah, thank you so much.

FERRIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF L.DRE'S "GRAVITY FALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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