debt limit

Kevin McCarthy May Have Already Won the Debt-Limit Fight

The survivor. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

With nine days remaining before the June 1 deadline that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has imposed to avoid a possible debt default, negotiations between the White House and House Republicans on a deal to increase the debt limit remain very tentative, even after another face-to-face encounter between President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

There are reportedly some pretty big, substantive differences: Republicans want a ten-year plan to “cap” non-defense discretionary spending, Biden so far is only willing to consider a short-term spending agreement, and there are non-spending demands in the debt-limit bill the House has already passed. And getting a deal done is complicated procedurally. In part that’s because McCarthy’s deal with hard-core conservatives to win the speakership in January included a mandatory 72-hour waiting period before a vote on any legislation, however time sensitive.

But the most important concession McCarthy gave up in January — making a motion to “vacate the chair” and potentially topple the Speaker always in order every day of the year — has been the sword of Damocles hanging over him and subsequently over the GOP’s debt-limit hostage-taking exercise. Being too eager to cut a deal with Biden and Democrats, McCarthy knew, might save the national and global economy, but it could also cost him the gavel he fought so hard to secure, particularly since some of his critics on the right agreed with Donald Trump that a debt default might not be a bad thing after all.

For all the uncertain talk about how close the parties are to a debt deal, however, there are signs McCarthy may have already passed his most important test by showing his edgy colleagues how tough he is, according to The Hill:

[C]onservatives say they’re not eyeing an effort to strip McCarthy of his gavel, even if they oppose an eventual compromise with Biden.

“Nobody’s talking about that,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) recently told MSNBC. “We support our Speaker. We want him to be successful because the country needs for him to be successful.”

“Literally nobody except the press is talking about removing McCarthy right now,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) echoed Monday on Twitter. 

Those dynamics could set the stage for a compromise that looks a lot like the debt ceiling deals of years past, when liberals rejected the legislation for cutting too much spending, conservatives opposed it for not cutting enough — and some motley combination of moderates and leadership allies in both parties came together to approve the bill and prevent a default.

Just as many progressive Democrats have privately (and some publicly) complained, many of those on McCarthy’s right flank think he’s already won the big battle by forcing key concessions from Biden on major matters of principle while keeping the House caucus onboard, notes The Hill:

McCarthy has dragged Biden to the negotiating table, which the president resisted for months. He’s taken any tax cuts — which Democrats have demanded in past debt limit fights — off the table. And the Speaker’s success last month in shepherding a Republican debt-ceiling package through the House — despite a tiny GOP majority — has buoyed even some of his fiercest conservative detractors.

In other words, the Speaker has made Uncle Joe cry “uncle,” giving the GOP a symbolic victory no matter how the deal plays out and putting Democrats on the defensive going into the 2024 elections. Now and through November 2024, Republicans will be able to say that Biden has “admitted” he allowed too much spending, which of course they blame for every conceivable economic ill. And if inflation subsides and a recession does not appear, Republicans will take credit for that via the debt-limit deal they “forced” Biden and the shadowy Marxists who control him to accept. It’s fine red meat for the perpetually angry and conflict-savoring MAGA base.

Now none of this is to say that McCarthy is fully out of the woods. He still has to cut a final deal that doesn’t look like too much of a walk-back from where the parties stand today, and he has to put together a majority to approve the deal that relies to the absolute minimum possible on Democratic votes (some will be necessary precisely so that the House Freedom Caucus bravos can oppose any deal even as they permit McCarthy to get it done).

There will be plenty of opportunities just down the road for additional base-pleasing fights over the appropriations measures necessary to implement any spending caps that are agreed to. And above all, by forcing Biden to the table, McCarthy will have preserved future hostage-taking opportunities by his troops whenever it seems useful. Not a bad job for a politician whose grip on the gavel seemed so very slippery very recently.

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Kevin McCarthy May Have Already Won the Debt-Limit Fight