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GOP, McCarthy now face even heavier debt ceiling lift

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) pulled out all the stops last week to move a debt ceiling bill through the House, twisting arms, modifying language and cutting last-minute deals with leery Republicans to send the package to the Senate by the narrowest of margins.

That might have been the easy part.

The next step — finding a bill that can win support from House Republicans and President Biden, and by the June 1 date set by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Monday — will be a much heavier lift.

It’s a challenge that will test McCarthy’s ability to work across the aisle for the sake of preventing a government default, while keeping the confidence of conservatives in his conference who expect him to hold a hard line on federal spending and deficit reduction.

“I’m sure it’s going to be tougher,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a McCarthy critic-turned-ally who backed the Republicans’ debt limit package.

Treasury announced Monday that the government will exhaust the ability to pay all of its obligations “as early as June 1” — even sooner than many lawmakers and economists expected — lending a heightened sense of urgency for both parties to set aside their differences.

For House Republicans, the passage of their debt ceiling package was the opening bid in that effort, and it marked a hard-fought victory for McCarthy and his leadership team, who spent the better part of a week scrambling to convince GOP holdouts to back the bill. It moved through the House on Wednesday by a marginal vote of 217-215, with four Republican defections — the most they could spare.

The vote lends Republicans new leverage in the debt ceiling fight by removing the Democrats’ argument that GOP leaders have “no plan” to tackle deficit spending. But exactly how much leverage remains an open question. 

Biden, who is demanding a “clean” hike, hasn’t budged from that position. The Republican proposal is dead on arrival in the Democratic-led Senate, where legislation to lift the borrowing cap to prevent a default will require bipartisan buy-in and will look very different if and when it returns to the House.

Indeed, some lawmakers in both parties are already anticipating Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has worked with Biden on high-stakes budget deals in years past, will step off the sidelines to help negotiate a bipartisan debt limit compromise that would originate in the Senate. 

Those political dynamics may soon present McCarthy with a dilemma unique to the new Congress, where conservatives are dead set against any effort to water down their deficit-reduction demands and any one of them can launch a vote of no confidence against the Speaker. 

“It will be more difficult, and therein lies the problem. Because both sides created this problem,” said Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who opposed the initial House bill until McCarthy promised to work with her on longer-term efforts to cut away at the nation’s $31.4 trillion debt.

For the Speaker, those difficulties will come from several directions. 

Most obviously, McCarthy is facing pressure from the right to preserve the $4.8 trillion in deficit reduction included in the House debt limit proposal, while Biden, from the left, is refusing to negotiate on the debt limit at all. The president instead wants to eliminate the threat of default as a standalone issue, reserving discussions of deficit reduction for a separate debate on future government funding, which will demand action before Oct. 1.

“I’m happy to meet with McCarthy, but not on whether or not the debt limit gets extended. That’s not negotiable,” Biden said last week

Less evident is the lingering internal threat facing McCarthy, who agreed to alter House rules in January to make it easier for disgruntled rank-and-file lawmakers to topple a sitting Speaker. 

That change could be an outsized factor in the debate in a chamber where some conservatives are pressing McCarthy to keep any more moderate proposals off the floor, where they could pass with help from Democrats. 

“I’m not interested in anything coming back — anything but what we voted on,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.).

No Republican has yet threatened to “vacate the chair” if McCarthy were to allow an unpopular debt ceiling hike to pass on a floor he controls. But the prospect hovers, and some lawmakers are already predicting one scenario in which the Speaker is presented with a thankless choice: saving the economy or his job. 

“What I’m confident about from the conversations that I’ve had is that there are enough — let me pick my words carefully here — but ‘serious Republicans’ who would vote for a package that was agreed upon by Mitch McConnell,” Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), head of the New Democrat Coalition, told reporters Friday. “And I think, then, Kevin McCarthy may have the biggest decision in his tenure.”

Some lawmakers are lamenting that politics have devolved to the point that such speculation is even being contemplated. 

“If the fear of losing the gavel overrides the consequences of defaulting on our debt, that’s the saddest commentary I’ve ever heard about American politics,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.). 

Phillips, a member of the moderate Problem Solvers Caucus, is urging the sides to come together on a deficit-reduction plan, but he also supports Biden’s position of divorcing those talks from the debt limit debate. 

“The ceiling should not be negotiable right now,” he said. “But there has to be a negotiation on the budget.”

As Congress rushes closer to June 1, McCarthy’s allies are racing to his defense, noting the Speaker has repeatedly disproven the skeptics.

“I just continue to hear that: Speaker McCarthy can’t get this done, he can’t get that done, he can’t even get elected Speaker. And I think at every turn he’s exceeded expectations,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), head of the Main Street Caucus. 

“I believe he’s going to be able to get a strong conservative product, have the president come to the table, and ultimately, we’re going to be able to get something that puts us in the right direction.”

Johnson also rejected the notion that a bipartisan debt ceiling bill will be a tougher endeavor than the Republicans’ partisan proposal, for the simple reason that some Democrats would be on board. 

“When you can pull from 435 members, it is easier to get 218,” he said. 

More conservative Republicans are warning that they’ll oppose anything that doesn’t take aggressive steps toward deficit and debt reduction. 

“I’d like to see real debt reduction, not statements like, ‘We’re seeing the rate of growth decline in our debt,’” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), who was among the four Republicans to oppose the GOP bill last week. “That’s a sucker’s bet.” 

Mychael Schnell contributed.   

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