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Why Kevin McCarthy’s debt ceiling plot is completely unraveling

Months into the Republicans’ debt ceiling crisis, with a dangerous deadline looming, the GOP — in a rather literal sense — has no idea what it's doing.


Late last week, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy once again pleaded with President Joe Biden to negotiate over the debt ceiling, suggesting that the Democrat was putting the nation at risk by refusing to engage in hostage negotiations. The argument was ridiculous on its face: It’s McCarthy, not Biden, who’s threatening to hurt Americans on purpose.

As part of the same remarks, the California Republican added, in reference to the talks he’s desperate to have, “I would bring lunch to the White House. I would make it soft food, if that’s what he wants. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it takes to meet.”

This was apparently intended to be a cheap shot at the president’s age — as if Biden might be more inclined to sit down for hostage negotiations after the hapless House speaker insulted him.

But hanging over head was a problem McCarthy has long been reluctant to acknowledge: There’s still no point in having such a meeting, not only because the president won’t negotiate with those threatening to impose deliberate harm on the nation, but also because House Republicans still don’t have a plan that could serve as the basis for a constructive dialog.

In January, McCarthy declared that the House GOP’s “very first responsibility” would be “to pass a budget ... so the country can see the direction we’re going.” He and his party have since walked away from their “very first responsibility,” even as they beg Biden to enter negotiations.

Making matters far worse, the principal impediment to progress isn’t the difference between Republicans and Democrats, it’s between Republicans and other Republicans.

House Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington told reporters two weeks ago, for example, that the GOP conference was finalizing a list of specific budget cuts to be brought into negotiations with the White House. McCarthy added soon after, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

It was against this backdrop that The New York Times reported yesterday:

Mr. McCarthy has told colleagues he has no confidence in Mr. Arrington, the man responsible for delivering a budget framework laying out the spending cuts that Republicans have said they will demand in exchange for any move to increase the debt limit. Aside from the perceived disloyalty, Mr. McCarthy regards Mr. Arrington, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, as incompetent, according to more than half a dozen people familiar with his thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

In case this weren’t quite enough, the Times’ report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, added that the House speaker has also told colleagues and allies that he cannot rely on House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, describing the Louisianan as “ineffective, checked out and reluctant to take a position on anything.”

In other words, months into the Republicans’ debt ceiling crisis, with a dangerous deadline looming, GOP leaders — in a rather literal sense — have no idea what they’re doing.

The scariest thing about this crisis is that Republicans are threatening to impose an economic catastrophe on all of us. The second scariest thing is that the GOP leaders who created this crisis are both clueless and at odds with one another.

The party’s plan to pass a budget has been discarded. The party’s plan to balance the budget within 10 years is also gone. The party has no timeline, no opening offer, no blueprint, no proposed compromise, and no proposed cuts. So what is it, exactly, that McCarthy wants to talk to Biden about?

In the hopes that the House speaker might see this, let’s briefly review Hostage Taking 101.

Step 1: Identify and take hostage.

Step 2: Reach out to hostage’s loved ones, telling them you’ll harm the hostage unless your demands are met.

Step 3: Tell the hostage’s loved ones what your demands are.

Step 4: Wait for a response.

GOP leaders seem to have some rudimentary understanding of this process, but they appear to be skipping past Step 3.

In case this weren’t quite enough, even if Biden were to sit down with McCarthy for some kind of talks, it wouldn’t much matter, not only because he and his party don’t have a plan, but also because McCarthy doesn’t have any credibility: If the two leaders worked out a compromise, who could say with any confidence whether the House speaker could deliver the votes to pass it? Especially if his right-hand man is “ineffective, checked out and reluctant to take a position on anything”"

Biden has a plan. It’s simple and effective. As the president sees it, Congress can and should simply raise the debt ceiling and prevent default. The beauty of this plan is that it doesn’t cost anything; it’s a step both parties have taken dozens of times over the course of generations; it only takes a few minutes; and it prevents an economic disaster.

Republicans don’t agree with one another, except in their dislike of the president’s plan. With our economic stability on the line, that’s not good enough.