By averting a government shutdown, Kevin McCarthy risks his job

AMERICA’S CONGRESS stunned the world on September 30th by doing its job: passing a last-minute bill to avert a shutdown of the federal government that had seemed certain. However, the stopgap legislation came at the expense of extending American support for Ukraine, and may prompt further acrimony. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, is facing a challenge to his authority from his own party.

For weeks Mr McCarthy had tried to placate hardliners in his camp pushing for steep spending cuts and other conservative policies, such as stricter border enforcement, that had no chance of becoming law with Joe Biden in the White House. Yet with just hours to spare before a shutdown, he called up a bill that tossed aside the priorities of the far right and relied on Democratic votes to pass the legislation, which Mr Biden signed minutes before the midnight deadline. Indeed, more Democrats than Republicans supported the bill.

Although a shutdown had appeared inevitable all week, it was also inevitable that Mr McCarthy would have to rely on Democrats if he wanted to keep the government open. Republicans have such a slim majority in the House—221 to 212—that the party’s nihilists in effect have a veto over any Republican-only legislation. The surprise was that Mr McCarthy, who has been in senior House roles during three shutdowns, chose compromise over closure.

Reassuring as it might seem (the federal government’s employees will continue to be paid and its basic functions will continue uninterrupted), the stopgap spending law is far from perfect. Although it includes $16bn for much-needed domestic disaster relief, dealing with the ravages of fires, floods and hurricanes, it omits assistance for Ukraine, for which the White House had sought $24bn. And because it funds the government only until November 17th, the drama could be repeated in just six weeks.

The absence of money for Ukraine, especially, means there is little to celebrate. Mike Quigley, a congressman from Illinois, was the only Democrat to vote against the bill, and cited the lack of Ukraine funding. “This bill is a victory for Putin and Putin-sympathisers everywhere,” the co-chair of the congressional Ukraine caucus said. A clear majority of both chambers of Congress supports long-term assistance for Kyiv, but the dysfunction on Capitol Hill has for now overridden it.

Theoretically Mr McCarthy would spend the coming weeks negotiating with the White House and the Senate (which the Democrats control) on a government-funding solution that would extend beyond the 2024 presidential election. Unruly as Congress has become, no one on Capitol Hill wants an ugly spending fight during campaign season. But the speaker will have to contend with a mutiny first.

Matt Gaetz, a hardliner from Florida, declared on October 1st that he would file a “motion to vacate”, that is, call for a vote to oust the speaker. “Speaker McCarthy made an agreement with House conservatives in January,” Mr Gaetz told CNN. “And since then he has been in brazen, material breach of that agreement.”

But there is no guarantee that the beleaguered speaker will be toppled. He has proven tenacious already—in January he endured 15 humiliating rounds of voting before being elected, in what is usually a pro forma exercise to pick a speaker.

The House Freedom Caucus, a group of hardline Republicans to which Mr Gaetz does not belong, for now appears divided about trying to oust the Californian. And days earlier Tom Emmer, the third-ranked House Republican, shot down speculation that he would be willing to replace Mr McCarthy.

Mr McCarthy seems ready for the challenge. “If somebody wants to make a motion against me, bring it,” the speaker said at a press conference after passing the spending bill. “There has to be an adult in the room.” His party, alas, has too few of those.