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In the debt ceiling crisis, blame the GOP’s so-called ‘moderates’

If just five GOP centrists were to say, “Threatening to harm Americans is wrong and we won’t be a part of it,” the crisis would end. That's not happening.


As House Republican leaders moved forward with their debt ceiling crisis in recent months, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy started thinking of the assorted factions within his conferences as “the five families.” A Washington Post report last month said some of the contingents included “more pragmatic and governance-minded Republicans,” many of whom represent competitive congressional districts.

In theory, this offered the public a degree of hope. Sure, GOP leaders and their extremist colleagues seemed a little too eager to threaten Americans with deliberate harm, but so long as there are still some “pragmatic and governance-minded” Republicans in the House, we could take comfort in the fact that the party’s so-called “moderates” would choose a more responsible course.

At least, that was the theory.

In practice, McCarthy brought his indefensible debt ceiling hostage note to the House floor this week. How many “pragmatic and governance-minded” Republicans voted against it? Literally none. There were four GOP members who ended up balking, but the quartet were far-right lawmakers who said the radical legislation wasn’t quite radical enough.

The party’s ostensible centrists could’ve helped save the day. They chose not to.

As Republicans push the nation closer to a deliberate catastrophe, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Americans can and should hold McCarthy and other GOP leaders responsible for helping orchestrate this fiasco. Voters can and should also marvel at just how many extremists are calling the shots in the Republican-led chamber.

But to overlook the members who pass for “moderates” in 2023 would be a serious mistake. About a week ago, ahead of the House vote on the Limit, Save, Grow Act, Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman had a good piece on this dynamic.

... The supposedly reasonable Republicans — the moderates, the centrists, the pragmatists, whatever you call them — who could end this madness now if they chose but instead are enabling the crisis. ... [The ongoing crisis] would not be possible without the complicity of all parts of the House GOP — the leadership, the far-right and the allegedly responsible center. If the supposed moderates wanted to, they could join Democrats to support a clean increase.

As a matter of arithmetic, this is both plainly true and frequently overlooked. The House Republican conference has 222 members. It takes 218 votes to pass a bill in the chamber. As such, if only five GOP pragmatists were to say, “Threatening to harm Americans is wrong and we won’t be a part of it,” the crisis would come to a rather abrupt end. McCarthy simply wouldn’t have the votes to move forward with an extortion scheme.

So why aren’t the so-called “moderates” doing the right thing? Why are they enabling their leaders and these dangerously radical tactics?

In part because they’re not actual moderates, and in part because they agree with the dangerously radical tactics.

I can draw this conclusion with confidence because Republican Rep. Don Bacon, who has a reputation as one of his party’s most unabashed centrists, told me so in January: The Nebraskan argued in no uncertain terms that his party is entitled, not only to pursue dramatic spending cuts, but also to threaten our collective wellbeing in pursuit of far-right goals.

If the Republican Party had actual moderates, it’d be easier to imagine a way out of the GOP-imposed crisis that didn’t hurt anyone. But for all the chatter about “the five families” and the party’s “pragmatic and governance-minded” wing, there’s very little practical difference between the Republicans’ conservative hardliners and the GOP’s ostensibly mainstream members.