October 3, 2023 - 1:00pm

The US government has dodged yet another shutdown, despite the threat from the GOP’s radical Right to drive Congress off a fiscal cliff. It’s probably too early to definitively declare winners and losers, but one figure who has conspicuously enhanced his political standing today is the House Speaker, Republican Kevin McCarthy.

McCarthy’s unexpected act of statesmanship in striking a deal with Democrats still might cost him his job. Almost immediately after the Speaker announced the bipartisan deal, Right-wing Congressman Matt Gaetz introduced a motion to remove McCarthy from the speakership. 

But in securing bipartisan majorities in the House, there was an additional sting in the tail: namely, the omission of funding for Ukraine, in spite of attempts by the White House and Democrats in Congress to make such funding contingent on accepting McCarthy’s proposal, thereby avoiding a shutdown. Ultimately, the Democrats largely acceded to McCarthy’s proposals despite the Ukraine omission. 

On the face of it, a shutdown driven by a few MAGA extremists might ostensibly have served the Democrats well politically, but House Democrats in particular quickly realised that the optics of rejecting McCarthy’s proposals would leave them vulnerable to the charge (made effectively by Senators J.D. Vance and Rand Paul among others) that their governing priorities were all warped.

The GOP could plausibly state that Democrats were perfectly happy to pay the salaries of Ukrainian government workers, even as America’s own government was refusing to send pay cheques to its employees for as long as this shutdown lasted. Useful fodder for the 2024 election.

In the medium term, having eliminated funding for Ukraine until 17 November (the timeframe of the continuing resolution just passed), McCarthy and the GOP have set the precedent for stopping the seemingly endless appropriations for the Russo-Ukraine war at a time when polls increasingly indicate scepticism about sending more aid. 

It’s perfectly reasonable for voters to ponder why over $100 billion deployed in Ukraine couldn’t be used instead in the service of infrastructure to prevent chronic flooding in New York City or fund additional southern border security measures to control an increasingly chaotic immigration situation. The House Speaker — and his party — are seeking to address the latter issue by explicitly linking future Ukrainian funding to additional resources for border security. 

The issue of Ukraine itself is now likely to be revived in a separate bill. But here it is important to note that McCarthy is not simply an “America First” isolationist. The Pentagon (as it is wont to do when threatened with cuts to its already ample defense trough) is now warning Congress that it is running low on money to replace weapons sent to Ukraine, and has already been forced to slow down resupplying troops. In response, the House Speaker is demanding that any further aid to Kyiv be matched with clear accountability as to where the dollars have been spent, and what Nato’s ultimate endgame is in Ukraine.

Even within the White House, the issue of additional aid for the Zelenskyy administration has become politically problematic, with figures privately voicing concerns about transparency and the scale of corruption in the country. In this regard, McCarthy may be serving as a useful foil for both parties.

Kevin McCarthy’s actions over the weekend, now lauded even by the New York Times, could create long-term problems for the Democrats, whose main goals in Ukraine remain extremely fuzzy. The Speaker may or may not save his own job, but even if he loses the gavel, he might have provided the blueprint for defeating the Biden administration (and Congressional Democrats) as we head into the 2024 elections. 

Marshall Auerback is a market commentator and a research associate for the Levy Institute at Bard College.