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How Kevin McCarthy came out on top in the latest debt ceiling drama

Don’t expect the concessions McCarthy made to his detractors to insulate him from their never-ending wrath and hostility.

If past is prologue, then the 2011 debt ceiling debate informed the 2023 debt ceiling drama Congress faced this week.

In 2011, Republican Speaker John Boehner tried to reconcile debt ceiling politics in a divided government. Back then, the Republicans controlled the House, Democrats the Senate and Barack Obama the White House. The tea party wave of 2010 delivered Republicans a substantial House majority, and with that rambunctious majority came unrealistic expectations of what could be accomplished in divided government. To mollify Republican hard-liners, the GOP House leadership team of Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy advanced legislation dubbed “cut, cap and balance,” an aggressive measure to increase the debt limit, cut federal spending, cap future spending and allow a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget. 

McCarthy prevailed in impressive fashion with a strong debt ceiling vote among his House GOP colleagues, reinforcing his position as speaker.

This time, McCarthy, R-Calif., prevailed in impressive fashion with a strong debt ceiling vote among his House GOP colleagues, reinforcing his position as speaker. Expect McCarthy’s harshest critics to plot their next move. A motion to vacate the chair is the nuclear option for the hard-liners. But do not expect such a kamikaze move now, as it would infuriate the vast majority of the House GOP Conference. Fortunately for McCarthy, his angry detractors are not strategic thinkers, and they are likely to misfire in whatever they do.

Regardless, the concessions McCarthy made to his detractors in January to secure the speaker’s gavel have not insulated him from their never-ending wrath and hostility. 

Anyone with an ounce of political sense knew “cut, cap and balance” had no chance of ever becoming law. Hard-liners insisted such legislation would be their price to vote to increase the debt ceiling. Pragmatic and moderate Republicans bristled at the notion of voting for a politically perilous bill to pacify the hard-liners who had no intention of voting for the inevitable debt ceiling compromise that Obama would sign into law. Further, the hard-liners would condemn those Republicans who voted for the compromise debt ceiling legislation, which included automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and other disparaging terms. 

One of the great challenges facing congressional leadership is managing expectations among the party base and leading the herd away from foreseeable cliffs.

One only needs to substitute the Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023 for the Cut, Cap and Balance Act of 2011, McCarthy for Boehner and President Joe Biden for Obama to understand current debt ceiling dynamics. While there are differences between the 2011 and 2023 debt ceiling spectacles — today, the GOP has a much narrower margin, McCarthy has integrated the hard-liners much more fully into the House Republican Conference, and the degree of fear, trepidation and uncertainty is greater — the fundamentals remain largely the same.

McCarthy and his leadership team touted the Limit, Save, Grow Act as the GOP response to Biden and the Democrats who refused to negotiate with Republicans on the debt ceiling, an obviously unsustainable position. While passing Limit, Save, and Grow arguably did lay down a marker Biden and the Democrats could not ignore, it also raised expectations among House GOP hard-liners, many of whom are part of the House Freedom Caucus: that this legislation unrealistically represented a firm line in the sand. Of course, the Republican hard-liners never had any intention of voting for the debt ceiling compromise skillfully negotiated by McCarthy and Biden, known as the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023.

By conventional political standards, the debt ceiling legislation reflects a serious bipartisan compromise in which Republicans can claim policy victories by imposing strict budget caps for nondefense and nonveterans discretionary spending, providing a glide path for reform of permitting, expanding work requirements for able-bodied food stamp recipients from 49 to 54 years of age and clawing back unspent Covid money. Democrats can boast the things they prevented and protected, including the climate and health provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, extreme cuts to domestic programs and no work requirements for Medicaid recipients.

These, of course, are not conventional times, and bipartisan compromises, once celebrated, are now scorned and ridiculed by extreme elements of both parties’ political bases. “Surrender,” “capitulation” and “sellout” are words used to describe traditional legislating resulting in negotiated bipartisan agreements. 

Ordinarily, Kevin McCarthy would receive not only the votes but also credit from his conference for tough negotiating that resulted in some significant, though not transformational, policy victories. Speakers Boehner and Paul Ryan were hammered relentlessly by their hard-liners not to bring bills to the House floor that could not get support from a majority of the House GOP, once known as the Hastert Rule. 

McCarthy, Biden and Jeffries all deserve credit for making government function. Let’s hope they can do it more often.

McCarthy was under intense pressure to deliver more than half the GOP Conference for this debt ceiling compromise, and he exceeded expectations by delivering 149 votes. House Democrats provided an impressive 165 votes, and more important, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., delivered a huge assist by releasing his members to vote for a key procedural rule to thwart a last-ditch effort by GOP hard-liners to block the bill.  

House Democrats played a key role to secure passage, notwithstanding their unhappiness with the process and some aspects of the deal. Call it an impressive win for the center-right, center-left governing majority. The extremes in both parties are clearly displeased; some no doubt feel betrayed. McCarthy, Biden and Jeffries all deserve credit for making government function. Let’s hope they can do it more often.

Several of the GOP members who obstructed McCarthy’s ascension to the speakership in January are making inflammatory statements and not-so-veiled threats about his political future. Not so ironically, the same members who nearly torpedoed McCarthy in January were being reinforced by the usual cast of scolds and self-designated chiefs of the Republican purity police at the Club for Growth, Freedom Works and the Heritage Foundation. The one voice conspicuously quiet throughout this difficult negotiation was that of Donald Trump, who could have moved some GOP votes to the no column if he had condemned the legislation, which he did not do. While he called for default during a town hall a few weeks ago, Trump’s only word salad-type comment was that he would have done things differently and that McCarthy worked very hard on the deal. 

Moving forward, McCarthy is in a much stronger position within the House Republican Conference thanks to the strong vote on the debt ceiling. The Biden administration will find it harder to ignore McCarthy as it tried to on the debt ceiling by refusing to negotiate with him for a few months. By delivering 149 votes, McCarthy demonstrated his ability to lead his members on a consequential matter of governance. Consequently, the Biden administration must take him very seriously.

Few thought McCarthy could corral his conference. His hard-line opposition within the GOP conference at some point may move against him, but for now, he is safe. A motion to remove him as speaker would be greeted with hostility from most House Republicans, and it would be likely to divide the hard-liners. In 2015, second-term Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina offered a motion on the floor to remove Boehner as speaker, which caused dissension among his fellow Freedom Caucus members, who were caught off-guard and were clearly disunited over the plan. A similar move now would be likely to end just as badly as Meadows’ failed attempt.

If McCarthy’s detractors decide to strike, it is likely they will obstruct by voting against procedural measures that would prevent the majority party from putting some bills on the floor. They will look for targets of opportunity, starting with the coming appropriations bills. Expect mischief around Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends and a continuing resolution will be required to fund the government on a temporary basis until the appropriations bills are enacted in December. The year-end pileup will most likely include an omnibus spending bill, which would create an uproar among the hard-liners, who would view it as a betrayal. 

Whatever the case, McCarthy is in a much stronger position now to deal with these disruptive internal uprisings than he was before the debt ceiling agreement. Advantage McCarthy.