Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is balancing on a tightrope over a shark tank in the debt ceiling negotiations, balancing between a government default on one side and the loss of his Speakership on the other.
The dominant narrative could be completely incorrect.
As McCarthy and President Biden race to find common ground on extending the government’s borrowing authority, the Speaker has defied the doubts that accompanied his difficult path to the gavel, building trust among his conservative naysayers and creating what appears to be a comfortable space to battle Biden over the debt ceiling hike terms.
McCarthy has dragged Biden to the negotiation table, which the president had previously refused to do. He’s ruled out any tax cuts, which Democrats have demanded in previous debt-ceiling battles.
And the Speaker’s success last month in shepherding a Republican debt-ceiling agreement through the House despite a razor-thin GOP majority has encouraged even the most ardent conservative critics.
Even if they oppose an ultimate agreement with Biden, those conservatives insist they are not considering removing McCarthy from office.
“Nobody’s talking about that,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-VA) on MSNBC yesterday. “We back our Speaker. We want him to succeed because the country needs him to succeed.”
“Literally nobody except the press is talking about removing McCarthy right now,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted Monday.
Literally nobody except the press is talking about removing McCarthy right now. https://t.co/aYMwI0Wfnf
— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) May 22, 2023
These dynamics could pave the way for a compromise that resembles previous debt ceiling agreements, in which liberals opposed the legislation for cutting too much spending, conservatives opposed it for not cutting enough and a motley coalition of moderates and leadership allies in both parties came together to approve the bill and avoid a default.
“The mechanics of getting there, we’re very tuned in with,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), one of the Republicans handling the negotiations with the White House.
McCarthy is aware of these dynamics, admitting Monday that given Democrats’ control of the White House and Senate, House Republicans would never get everything they wanted the same divided powers that governed similar debt ceiling battles between former President Obama and then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and more recently between former President Trump and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“It happens every single time,” McCarthy told reporters in the Capitol before meeting with Biden at the White House. “That’s what a divided government does.”
McCarthy’s job is to reach a bipartisan agreement and get a plan to the House floor to earn Biden’s support without infuriating conservatives to the point where they seek to depose the Speaker.
“The skepticism of McCarthy specifically has been hanging in the air for a long time now and sort of casts a dark cloud over the proceedings this time around,” said Philip Wallach, senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“It’s easy to imagine that dissipating, and Kevin McCarthy showing that once again, the doubters are going to realize that he’s capable of more than they imagined,” he concluded.
“But it’s also easy to imagine things getting very complicated if Republicans start tearing each other apart.”
McCarthy has discounted the possibility of an internal GOP uprising, claiming he can reach an agreement that avoids a default while winning at least half of his conservative-heavy conference — a criterion known colloquially as the Hastert Rule.
“I firmly believe that what we’re negotiating right now will be seen by a majority of Republicans as… [putting] us on the right track,” he said on Monday.
Nonetheless, the removal process was aided by rule changes agreed to by Kevin McCarthy in January to secure enough conservative support to win the gavel – differences that allow a single legislator to initiate removing the Speaker’s chair. Democrats are skeptical McCarthy will hold a vote on a bipartisan debt ceiling bill if his seat is at stake.
“That’s the big unknown,” said Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), a 25-year Capitol Hill veteran, noting that the threat to resign as Speaker is more blatant this year than in previous years.
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“If that weren’t the case, if Paul Ryan or John Boehner were in charge, you’d be able to say, ‘OK, I can pretty much figure out how that will play [out].'” But this is an unknown that we haven’t encountered before.”
The chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), was even more suspicious.
“If Kevin McCarthy is forced to choose between maintaining power in his Speakership and bringing us closer to default, we know he’ll choose default,” Aguilar told reporters earlier this month.
Nonetheless, Democratic leaders will face their own problems in the debate because any deal must include some of the budget cutbacks and other policy changes that Republicans are demanding.
Indeed, Biden has already indicated his willingness to consider a spending freeze for 2024, which would allow for reforms to speed energy projects and an extension of work requirements for some social assistance programs.
Liberals in Congress oppose all of these provisions, and their inclusion will put the newly installed Democratic leader, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), to the test in rallying his caucus in support of their White House partner.
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McCarthy end game on debt ceiling begins to come into focus https://t.co/6dUzrSaICq
— NewsNation (@NewsNation) May 23, 2023
Because a handful of conservatives have stated that they will not vote for anything less than the House GOP version, Democratic support will be critical to the package’s success. Democrats are already warning that their permission will be limited as well.
“Let’s face it: the Democratic Party will have the majority of votes in the House to pass this.” So we can’t have a deal that is so heavily weighted toward Republican policy interests.
Still, when it comes to votes, it’s the House Democrats who are expected to do the heavy lifting,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (Pa.), the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, told on Sunday night.
“To be honest, that’s not going to happen.”
McCarthy’s conservative critics have praised him throughout the debate while putting pressure on him to stand firm. Nonetheless, “I haven’t heard anybody talking about the motion to vacate except for reporters who asked me about that,” Good told.
Furthermore, any conservative move to depose McCarthy would necessitate the cooperation of practically all minority Democrats, as the Speaker would undoubtedly be supported by the vast majority of his GOP conference – a step many Democrats say they will not accept.
“I don’t think Democrats want to exacerbate the uncertainty and chaos,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). “That doesn’t help any of us.”
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