WASHINGTON — Speaker Kevin McCarthy is attempting a difficult balancing act as he tries to extract spending concessions from President Joe Biden in exchange for raising the debt ceiling: cobbling together a deal that can win the votes of a majority of Republicans without alienating the critical mass of Democrats he would need to push it through the House.
Hard-right Republicans have fueled the debt limit standoff by demanding deep spending cuts as the price of averting a default, and they are all but certain to oppose any compromise. That means that McCarthy, R-Calif., would need the support of a solid bloc of Democrats in the closely divided chamber.
The political reality is weighing on both Republicans and Democrats in the debt limit talks, which continued Tuesday on Capitol Hill with no sign of imminent resolution. McCarthy and Biden are weighing compromises that would likely result in losing the votes of both the hard left and right flanks in Congress, meaning they would need to assemble a coalition of Republicans and centrist Democrats to back any final deal to avert a default.
The strategy carries steep political risks for McCarthy, who won his post earlier this year after a bruising 15 rounds of votes in part by promising to elevate the voices of his most conservative lawmakers — and agreeing to a snap vote to oust him at any time. He can afford to lose conservatives’ votes on the debt ceiling, but if he strikes a deal that angers them too much, he could be out of his job.
“My conservative colleagues for the most part support Limit, Save, Grow, and they don’t feel like we should negotiate with our hostage,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who was one of McCarthy’s chief detractors during his fight for the speakership. Gaetz was referring to the bill the House passed last month that would cut government programs by an average of 18% over a decade in exchange for raising the debt limit.
The dynamic has complicated the task of finding a palatable agreement, placing negotiators on a precarious legislative seesaw. If they impose tighter work requirements for public benefit programs to win over Republicans, for instance, they risk losing too many Democrats. If they tip the compromise toward Democrats by dialing back the spending cuts, they risk alienating Republicans.
Further complicating the picture is an unwritten but virtually inviolable rule long adhered to by speakers of both parties that any legislation they bring up must win at least a majority of their members.
“It’s a complicated piece of math,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. and one of the negotiators McCarthy has tapped to lead the talks.
White House and Republican negotiators have been circling around the same set of issues — chief among them the duration and size of cuts to the federal budget — in an effort to avert a possible economic catastrophe that could come as soon as June 1.
The question is whether McCarthy can negotiate an agreement that his most conservative lawmakers, many of whom had never before voted to raise the debt ceiling, might oppose but will not attack.
“I don’t think exactness is the standard, but robustness is,” said Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C. and a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus. “Sometimes negotiators are so eager to make a deal that they’re unprepared to exploit the leverage that they have.”
The pressure from his right helps explain the bursts of defiance the speaker has shown at times during the negotiations and why Republicans have hinted that no deal is likely to materialize until a default is truly imminent. When asked Monday evening what it would take to break the deadlock, McCarthy replied, “June 1.”
McCarthy expressed confidence that whatever deal he negotiates will receive the backing of a majority of his conference, even as he acknowledged the deal ultimately “won’t solve all the problems” Republicans want to tackle. And he has repeatedly noted that he kept his conference together on the only debt ceiling bill that has passed Congress this year.
“I firmly believe what we’re negotiating right now, a majority of Republicans will see that it is a right place to put us on the right path,” McCarthy said.
Some key conservatives have already begun to openly worry that they are losing some of the political ground they believe they gained in the debt limit bill the House passed in April, which included rollbacks of major elements of Biden’s signature health, climate and tax law. For many House Republicans, the bill amounted to the bare minimum they would accept in exchange for raising the nation’s borrowing limit.
“There were a lot of people that put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into our legislation,” said Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., another one of McCarthy’s negotiators. “What we’re doing under the direction of the speaker is trying to protect all of the equities in that. We’re trying to keep as much of that together as we can, recognizing there’s a different common denominator at this point.”
Rep. Bob Good, R-Va. and a member of the Freedom Caucus, said that the “House has no more work to do” and that the Democrat-led Senate needed to pass the House GOP bill if senators wanted to avoid default.
“Most Republicans have never voted for a debt ceiling increase,” Good said. “Virtually all Republicans didn’t want to vote for the debt ceiling increase. But we came together and responsibly increased the debt limit. Everything that was in that bill was necessary.”
So far, right-wing lawmakers appear pleased with McCarthy’s approach. Good said he was “doing a good job,” and Gaetz said the knowledge that he could lose his post at any moment has kept pressure on McCarthy to do the right thing.
“The one-person motion to vacate has given us the best version of Speaker McCarthy,” Gaetz said.
There are risks for Democrats, too.
In both the House and the Senate, liberals have balked at the White House’s openness to negotiating with Republicans on imposing stricter work requirements on programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and food stamps, as well as the idea of cutting federal spending. Some progressives have urged Biden to stop negotiating with Republicans and avoid default by invoking the 14th Amendment.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Progressive Caucus, urged Biden to hold the line against Republican pressure or face significant backlash both from Democrats in Congress and from millions of voters.
“The president needs to continue to stay strong, because otherwise, there will be a backlash from people just losing faith that government cares about them,” she said.