Could Ukraine be the first casualty of the US budget showdown?
Kevin McCarthy, the beleaguered Speaker of the House of Representatives emerged from a meeting of his party on Friday night and told reporters that he believed he could get House Republicans to agree on a Senate plan to keep the government in business until November – if the Senate agreed to drop $6 billion in funding earmarked for Ukraine.
That is unlikely to be acceptable to Democrats in the Senate, who are the majority in the Upper House. But that might just be the idea – to try and put the blame for a likely government shutdown onto the Democratic party.
But it also reflects a deep and growing belief among Republicans that the US should not be funding the war in Ukraine – a theme that most of the candidates in Wednesday's Republican presidential primary debate warmed to. Only Chris Christie, the former Governor of New Jersey, was unequivocal in stating that it was in Americas interest to stop Putin in Ukraine.
And then there is the White House. It announced on Friday that the President would veto the spending bill that Speaker McCarthy saw shot down in flames by Republican party rebels on Friday because of the massive spending cuts it proposed. It's hard to see the President agreeing to a budget deal that would neuter his biggest foreign policy goal.
So how does the US end its budget impasse? For end it must. The economic consequences of not paying millions of civil servants and military service personnel mount over time.
A few days of shutdown is inconvenient. A few weeks without the normal government services could see real economic impact, particularly for families and individuals dependent on either government salaries or federal welfare and nutrition programmes. Or businesses, particularly SMEs looking for financial grants or permits.
There is a cost of shutdown – and a cost of restarting after one. A deal is needed, and it is the job of politicians to cut deals.
But Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. He is under threat from two sides of his own Republican party. The better-known side is the one that assassinated his compromise spending bill on Friday, undermining his position as speaker, the number three job in the US political hierarchy.
The other group has been mostly keeping its head down but may now emerge to cause the speaker a different problem.
These are Republicans in vulnerable congressional districts – the kind of people who will lose their seats if the kind of massive budget cuts the first group are seeking get nailed into a budget law, especially one that is still in force for next year's general election.
They have been talking to Democrats behind the scenes and are increasingly allowing their hopes and fears into the public domain.
The arithmetic of the Republican Majority in the House – a consequence of their poor showing in last Novembers mid-term elections – means that just four defectors can sink a Republican bill.
Friday’s vote on the Compromise measure proposed by McCarthy saw 21 defectors cross the aisle to vote with the Democrats.
But a similarly small number voting with the Democrats could see a spending bill passed by the House. Not one that most Republicans would like, for sure. But one that would keep the lights on and the civil servants at work.
The trouble is, if such a breakaway move happens, it too undermines McCarthy’s position as speaker (and leader of the Republican party in the House). In that case, members of the right-wing faction – known as the Freedom Caucus - would almost certainly carry out their publicly stated threat to pull the trigger on a move to boot McCarthy from office.
It took him fifteen votes of the House to gain the speaker's chair last January – a situation almost without precedent. The holdouts were gradually whittled down with a series of concessions from McCarthy.
One of them was that any single member of the Republican Caucus could trigger a mechanism to require McCarthy to stand for election all over again.
Right now, all eyes are on Florida representative Matt Gaetz, a very right-wing, very MAGA member of the Freedom Caucus, and a constant critic of McCarthy.
He led the opposition to McCarthy gaining the Speaker's chair in January and was one of four Republicans who refused to back him in any of the votes for speaker (McCarthy squeaked in without their backing).
Over the past week there have been reports of a number of explosive parliamentary party meetings of the House Republicans, accounts of F-bomb laden screaming matches involving Gaetz and the Speaker, in which McCarthy reportedly taunted Gaetz to "file the F-ing motion" if he dared.
Gaetz then went public, taking to the floor of the chamber and setting out his stall, threatening to bring down McCarthy over the budget standoff. McCarthy moved his compromise bill on Friday, in part to prove he was trying to keep the US government working and cast the blame on the MAGA faction that oppose him.
But the actual vote saw 21 members defect – more than had been expected. With close to 10% of the House Republicans going against the Speaker, the scale of the rebellion is significant.
Politico reports that Gaetz was seen talking to some Democrats on the House floor on Thursday night, reportedly sounding them out on how they would vote in a motion to oust McCarthy. It says Gaetz mentioned majority Whip Tom Emmer, Rules Committee chair Tom Cole and Budget Committee chair Jodey Arrington as possible replacements for McCarthy.
Gaetz denied he was plotting with Democrats to oust McCarthy - it would the height of hypocrisy to threaten McCarthy for working with Democrats to pass a budget and be working with Democrats to get the votes to kick out McCarthy for working with Democrats.
New York Republican Mike Lawler, laid into Gaetz openly, telling reporters: "Matt Gaetz is not a Conservative Republican – he is a charlatan".
Lawler is defending a slim enough majority in a strongly Democrat leaning state - a big cut in spending of the sort being sought by Gaetz could see him lose his seat, along with others like him.
Enough, perhaps to defect to give the House Democrats the numbers they need to get a temporary budget measure agreed by Democrats and some Republicans in the Senate through the lower house. This would buy another six or seven weeks to get a full year spending law approved.
Brendan Boyle, the Democratic Representative from Philadelphia who sits on the Budget Committee, hopes enough Republicans come on board to get the Senate measure through the House, but sees McCarthy’s dilemma as the stumbling block.
He told RTÉ News: "If Kevin McCarthy was willing to put the bipartisan Senate bill on the House floor, there’s a majority that would vote for it, we'd be able to avoid this shutdown. His problem is that he would need so many Democratic votes, he's afraid that he would lose his speakership because he’d be toppled from within his own party."
Wouldn't the fall of the Speaker just make it even more complicated to get a long-term budget measure through a House consumed with another speaker's election? After all, it took fifteen rounds of voting for Kevin McCarthy to emerge with the gavel.
"Well, first and foremost, we need to end the shutdown and get the budget through. I wish that Kevin McCarthy would have the backbone to work with Democrats to forge a bipartisan majority. They did that in the Senate. And it's pretty remarkable.
"They have a bill that passed by a more than a four to one margin. That's the same bill that I want the opportunity to vote for. And we already have enough Democrats and some Republicans who have said publicly that they would vote for that.
"The problem, again, is Kevin McCarthy is a little more concerned about keeping his speakership than he is about keeping the government open."
So what's the numbers game to back the Senate bill?
Representative Boyle said: "With 213. House Democrats, you only need five House Republicans to join us. There are more than five publicly who have said that they would be for what we call a clean CR (Continuing Resolution) that essentially locks everything in place and keeps the government funded and open, while we're having to work out the final details on what the next year's funding will look like".
But that will be essentially a temporary measure for a couple of months.
"It will be temporary measure - the Senate Bill has it as 45 days. So essentially six to seven weeks. That would probably give us enough time to reach an agreement in place for the full year.
"What this really boils down to though, and it's the same problem we've had ever since January - Kevin McCarthy has about 10 or so Republican members who really don't support him for speaker and want to use every opportunity to take him out as speaker. And frankly, that dynamic is in the end what is forcing a government shutdown more than anything else."
Members of the House have been told to expect another vote on something on Saturday, as efforts continue to find a means for the US Government to legally spend money.
But even the swiftest agreement between the two houses – and assuming it does not get vetoed by the President – will not be in time to stop at least a short-term shutdown of some parts of the US Government, and the disruption and cost that comes with that.