At a closed-door meeting with Republicans in the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday night, Speaker Kevin McCarthy pitched what he thought could finally be a breakthrough in a spending dispute with right-wing rebels that had left the House in a state of paralysis, staring down a disastrous shutdown with no way to move forward.
Then Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who months ago emerged as Mr. McCarthy’s chief tormentor, rose to speak.
Mr. Gaetz announced flatly that he had seven members who would oppose any plan to pass a stopgap measure to keep the government from shutting down on Oct. 1, no matter what spending or policy concessions Mr. McCarthy was willing to make to win them over. The proclamation did not go over well in the room, where even some members of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus grumbled in disapproval.
But after the meeting, Mr. McCarthy quietly approached Mr. Gaetz and asked him to share the list of names, which Mr. Gaetz happily turned over.
“They’re immovable,” Mr. Gaetz said with confidence. In fact, the list appeared to be growing.
With a fractured House in chaos, a government shutdown a near certainty and Mr. McCarthy grasping to hold onto his job, Mr. Gaetz has once again emerged as an influential figure on Capitol Hill, the determined ringleader of a small band of right-wing rebels who are willing to sow disorder and dissent no matter the consequences.
And unlike the speaker, who has repeatedly shown himself this week to be unable to corral Republicans to do his bidding, Mr. Gaetz appears — at least for now — to have enough votes to dictate how, or whether, the House will function.
“If you look at the events of the last two weeks,” he told reporters in the Capitol this week, “things seem to be kind of coming my way.”
For now, that means that the House is plunging ahead with an improbable plan, pushed by Mr. Gaetz, to debate a series of individual spending bills next week that will do nothing to keep the government open — and placing on the back burner the urgent task of passing a temporary measure to keep federal funding flowing before it lapses at midnight on Sept. 30.
“We have to break the fever” of continuing to pass short-term funding bills, Mr. Gaetz told the Rules Committee on Friday, pledging to oppose any version presented to him.
Passing the individual spending bills was, after all, a commitment Mr. McCarthy made during his race to become speaker, noted Mr. Gaetz, who led the band of right-wing resisters who held out for 14 rounds before finally agreeing to allow Mr. McCarthy, a California Republican, to win the gavel.
Last week, Mr. Gaetz marched to the floor to give a combative speech declaring Mr. McCarthy “out of compliance” with the concessions he made to the far right during that drawn-out fight. If Mr. McCarthy continued to push for a stopgap spending measure, Mr. Gaetz said he would then begin every legislative day in Congress with “the prayer, the pledge and the motion to vacate” — a measure to remove Mr. McCarthy from the speakership.
(Hearing of Mr. Gaetz’s planned speech, Mr. McCarthy pre-empted the broadside with an announcement of his own, hastily gathering reporters outside his office to announce he was opening an impeachment inquiry against President Biden — a step the hard right had demanded for months.)
“McCarthy just doesn’t seem to want to stand up to them,” Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, said Friday, using a graphic phrase to describe the excruciatingly painful grip that Mr. Gaetz and his hard-right compatriots appear to have on the speaker. “If he thinks this is the way we should do things, he’s not only the weakest speaker I’ve ever seen, but the most incompetent I’ve ever seen.”
Mr. McCarthy’s allies on Friday tried to play down Mr. Gaetz’s influence, noting that they have been working on moving individual spending bills forward since July.
“We’re not at the end of the road,” Representative Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, one of Mr. McCarthy’s top allies, said of passing a stopgap funding bill. “It’s a journey for many members. They need to see a lot of other action in order to have comfort with things that need to happen.”
As for members who, for personal or political reasons, would never be won over by Mr. McCarthy, he said: “We’re awake to that reality. This is not new. This is known stuff.”
But with only a four-vote margin of control in the House, that reality has greatly empowered Mr. Gaetz, the son of a wealthy Florida businessman-turned-legislator, who was investigated by the Justice Department for sex trafficking but never charged.
Mr. Gaetz also has some influential allies in his corner. His push against a temporary spending bill gained momentum when former President Donald J. Trump weighed in on his website, Truth Social, urging Republicans to vote against a temporary funding measure for a government he accused of being weaponized against him.
“They failed on the debt limit, but they must not fail now,” Mr. Trump wrote, referring to right-wing opposition to the deal Mr. McCarthy made with President Biden to avert a federal debt default.
“I think there might have been a few people on the fence who were persuaded by that statement,” Mr. Gaetz said in an interview. “I view that as consequential.”
And while Mr. McCarthy and his lieutenants desperately search for a way to avoid a lapse in funding, Mr. Gaetz argued a government shutdown might be just what is needed to break Washington’s addiction to spending.
“Certainly, I am not cheering for a shutdown,” Mr. Gaetz said. “There are tens of thousands in my district that will go without paychecks. But not every day of the shutdown is equally painful.”
A “mini shutdown” — one lasting six or eight days, short enough that most people wouldn’t miss a paycheck — could help “break the fever,” he said, adding: “It gets us maximum momentum on paradigm-changing spending in Washington.”
Still, if Mr. Gaetz had an endgame beyond shutting down the government and humiliating Mr. McCarthy, it was not clear what it was. Talk of changing the paradigm on spending in Washington did not appear to be realistic at a moment when Democrats control the Senate and the White House, and it was unclear why a shutdown would not drag on for much longer than Mr. Gaetz said he would prefer.
Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana, another top McCarthy ally, said that a shutdown was the opposite of a conservative posture and that every day of delay gave Democrats more leverage. “You’re giving people a holiday,” he said. “You’re giving federal employees zero days of working but paying them every single day.”
Mr. Gaetz spent Friday frantically trying to figure out which members were still in Washington and able to work with him. There were slim pickings; many lawmakers had left town Thursday afternoon after Mr. McCarthy canceled votes for the remainder of the week.
Mr. Gaetz and other members had spent most of the previous day in the office of Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the whip, whom he called an honest broker. But there was little progress.
“We know he can’t make anything happen,” Mr. Gaetz said of Mr. Emmer, the No. 3 House Republican. “He’s a good sounding board, he’s got some nice conference rooms, he doesn’t lie to us. We begged Emmer to keep everyone in town. Emmer agreed with us, and the speaker made a sort of unfortunate decision, nonetheless.”
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who joined other right-wing Republicans this week in blocking a Pentagon spending bill from the floor, had left town and planned to hold an “emergency town hall” in her district, which she was broadcasting on Rumble.
Representative Eli Crane of Arizona, another hard-right holdout, took the opposite approach, posting a video from the gym telling everyone he had stayed in town.
“The way we do things in this town has to change,” he said. “Unfortunately, the only way we’re going to get any change in this town is through force.”
Kayla Guo contributed reporting.