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McCarthy pushes different debt ceiling messages to GOP factions

To get his debt ceiling bill passed, Kevin McCarthy delivered contradictory messages to competing Republican factions. That's going to be a problem.


House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s public message about the Republicans’ debt ceiling crisis is an embarrassing mess. The GOP leader spent yesterday suggesting, for example, that his party was being “responsible“ by approving a ridiculous hostage note that everyone involved in the process knows Democrats will reject.

McCarthy also told Punchbowl News, “We’ve done our job,” which might be more compelling if the House speaker’s job entailed threatening Americans with a deliberate economic catastrophe.

But as woeful as the Republican’s public rhetoric has been, his private messages are likely to be an even bigger problem.

Consider, for example, this New York Times report on what McCarthy told his members to help get his right-wing Limit, Save, Grow Act across the finish line.

Beseeching his colleagues privately to back the bill, Mr. McCarthy repeatedly told them to ignore the substance of the measure, which would never become law, and instead focus on the symbolic victory of passing any legislation to show Mr. Biden they were serious about their demand for spending cuts.

The rationale behind such a message makes some sense: McCarthy made no secret of the fact that he "simply wanted to get to the negotiating table" with Democratic leaders. In order to make that happen, the House needed to pass something.

With this in mind, it’s easy to imagine the speaker effectively telling GOP skeptics from competitive congressional districts, “Don’t worry too much about the details of the bill. This will just open the door to bipartisan talks. You can vote for it now, knowing that the plan will inevitably change.”

There are some risks for the members who are now on the hook for supporting a radical package, but I understand the broader point: McCarthy told concerned House Republicans to ignore the substance of the plan and focus on advancing the process. Those members bought the line.

The trouble is, the speaker delivered a very different kind of message to a competing GOP faction. Politico reported:

Already there are signs of trouble ahead. Freedom Caucus member Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) told [Politico] that in a bid to win their support, McCarthy promised conservatives late Tuesday night that the debt ceiling bill they voted on yesterday was a floor, not a ceiling. McCarthy, he said, told them he would personally oppose and fight against any debt ceiling agreement that doesn’t include all of the red-meat provisions in the House bill.

A separate Politico report added, “McCarthy promised conservatives that he would not support any debt ceiling legislation weaker than what the House approved on Wednesday, a position that immediately puts him in a tough spot for negotiations with Democrats.”

The tension between the two messages is a serious problem — not just for the House speaker, but for those of us worried about Republicans crashing the global economy on purpose.

On the one hand, McCarthy quietly told his more mainstream members to ignore the substance of his debt ceiling plan. On the other hand, he also quietly told his more radical members that the substance of the plan is paramount. McCarthy told the former contingent the plan will change, just as he told the latter contingent that the plan can’t change.

Indeed, the House speaker told skeptics that he simply wants to have negotiations, even as he told extremists that there would be no actual negotiations: McCarthy would simply tell Democratic leaders that they have to accept each of his party’s radical measures without exception.

In the short term, this led to a successful outcome for Republicans: The right-wing plan just barely passed. But with McCarthy delivering contradictory messages to different GOP factions, he’s set himself up for failure — not only because Democrats will never go along with the speaker’s dangerous extortion tactics, but also because it’s impossible for him to honor his contradictory commitments to competing elements of his own House conference.