In Debt Deal, Centrists Push Back against Those on the Fringes

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), left, and President Biden in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 22, 2023.

For weeks, conservative Republicans warned House Speaker Kevin McCarthy not to back down from sweeping spending cuts, saying anything else would be an unforgivable betrayal. Liberals implored President Biden to abandon the debt ceiling talks altogether, insisting the Constitution enabled him to simply ignore Republican demands.

But in the end, the two leaders opted for a middle-of-the-road settlement, aiming to coalesce center-right and center-left lawmakers around the idea that an imperfect deal was preferable to a historic default that could devastate the economy. It was the first significant test for the Biden-McCarthy era of divided government, and if a theme emerged, it was the unmistakable reassertion of the political center.

“Both sides were initially sounding very ardent about an inflexible position,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “Yet both sides ultimately blinked – and that is what American politics is all about.”

Biden and McCarthy have each struggled at times to balance governing responsibly with appeasing their party’s base voters. The fire on the right has been especially notable, as McCarthy’s narrow majority includes a significant group that resists compromise and has the power to challenge his speakership. Adding to the drama of the current standoff was the perpetual threat that they could seek to topple the California Republican from his perch.

Yet in the end, the political dealmaking skills that Biden and McCarthy have honed during their decades in Washington have apparently prevailed – to the relief of moderate lawmakers, some of whom had grown anxious about the fast-approaching “X” date of June 5, when the U.S. government was expected to run out of funds.

Members of centrist groups like the Problem Solvers Caucus, the Republican Governance Group and the New Democrat Coalition quickly embraced the Biden-McCarthy deal. On the other hand, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats were left to grapple with the reality that their votes may not be critical in the tightly divided House.

White House officials involved in the negotiations said Biden believed from the beginning that a bipartisan approach had a higher likelihood of succeeding. The president campaigned for the White House in large part on his ability to bring together the parties in Congress, even at a hyperpartisan moment.

“The House is not very different from when I was there,” said Shalanda Young, a key negotiator for the White House and a longtime House aide, told reporters Tuesday. “You have to have some faith in the governing majority, which I do, because I have a lot of respect for members on both sides of the aisle to do what’s best for the American people. And that is not some Pollyannaish thing. I know them, and I’ve always thought we could get here if we let the extreme go away.”

Young, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, added, “I’ve worked in many divided government situations. I think this is where you would expect a bipartisan agreement to land. It’s just the reality. There’s not unified government. They have ideas. We have to listen to them. We have to talk about it.”

The debt ceiling deal still faces strong opposition from the right and the left, and could still fall apart before June 5, the date that the Treasury Department said the U.S. will run out of funds to pay its obligations.

Partisans lost little time criticizing the agreement and promising to torpedo it. Members of the House Freedom Caucus gathered Tuesday to denounce the agreement, saying it did not go far enough to restrict spending and roll back Biden’s priorities, and pledging to convince as many Republicans as possible to vote against it.

“This deal fails completely,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), chair of the group of about three dozen conservatives, told reporters. “And that’s why these members and others will be absolutely opposed to this deal and we will do everything in our power to stop it.”

While liberal Democrats were less vocal in denouncing the deal, several expressed concern that it cut spending on key social programs, instituted work requirements for some federal benefits and implemented permitting changes they say will harm the environment.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Sunday on CNN that the White House should be “worried” that liberals would not ultimately provide votes in support of the agreement. She told reporters Tuesday that many lawmakers in her group, which boasts more than 100 members, were “concerned” about aspects of the legislation.

Beyond that, many liberals increasingly argue that the entire notion of a debt limit is flawed, since Congress has already approved the spending in question and a second vote on whether to borrow the necessary funds makes no sense. They also note that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution says, in part, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned.”

Given that, many Democrats had urged Biden to simply ignore the debt limit rather than make concessions to Republicans in exchange for their votes. “The process also sets an extremely dangerous precedent,” Jayapal said. “Republicans can hold the economy hostage, they can force through their extremist policy priorities that have absolutely nothing to do with cutting spending or cutting the deficit.”

Biden argued that he was not bargaining over the debt limit, but over the separate question of what shape the federal budget should take. But Republicans left little doubt they saw the two as inextricably connected, and would not vote to raise the debt limit unless they were satisfied with the spending agreement.

Given the margins in the House, where Republicans and Democrats have each held razor-thin majorities during the past two Congresses, most legislation can be killed with just a handful of defections. While conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats have successfully threatened to block key bills in the past, the debt limit agreement is shaping up to be a rare vote where the centrists are in control.

“I had said from the very beginning that this would be a vote from the middle out,” said Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), the chair of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of almost 100 center-left House members. “I expect we will get to 218 with Republicans and Democrats. We’re divided government. And frankly, let’s demonstrate to the American people that mature and pragmatic legislators will get the job done.”

Biden and McCarthy began the negotiations from positions that appeased their activist bases. The White House initially said it would not negotiate over the debt ceiling, accusing Republicans of trying to hold the nation’s economy hostage. McCarthy led his conference to pass legislation that raised the debt limit but simultaneously imposed steep cuts on social programs; the bill went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but the speaker committed to his most conservative members that he would fight for its principles in his talks with the White House.

The final deal, if it holds, would reflect the reality that for all the drama of the current political landscape, there were always more members of Congress who were willing to make a deal than to blow it up. “I’ve always thought the majority of members, Democrats and Republicans, did not want to take us even to the brink of default,” Young said. “I think this bill shows that that assessment was correct. And we have to keep our eye on the prize of passing this bill, getting it to the president.”

In the end, both men claimed victory after reaching an agreement that forced them to compromise. Biden said the deal avoids a default and protects Democratic priorities, and even suggested that he could not proclaim publicly how good the deal was because then Republicans would vote against it.

“Look, you guys all get on and say, ‘Tell them what a good deal it is,'” he told reporters. “How about if this was a 100 percent deal for Democrats? Do you think it would help me get it passed?”

McCarthy, for his part, boasted that the legislation reduces federal spending for the first time and includes new work requirements that Democrats have railed against.

The approach is not without risks for both leaders, who are often viewed skeptically by stalwarts within their own parties and need to keep their shaky coalitions intact to hold on to power.

For McCarthy, who needed multiple rounds of votes to be elected speaker in January, the deal is especially fraught. He made several concessions to the House Freedom Caucus while pursuing the speakership, and some members of the group threatened to use the power they secured during the speaker battle to try to oust McCarthy from his post.

The last two Republican House speakers, John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) each resigned from Congress after squabbling with conservatives and facing threats of removal. And House Republicans have, if anything, only grown more restive and hard-hitting since then, forcing McCarthy to put several of his most rebellious members on key committees.

For his part, Biden is gearing up for a reelection bid in which he will probably need liberal Democrats to turn out in large numbers. Biden and his aides have spent much of the past few days on the phone, calling more than 100 Democratic lawmakers across the ideological spectrum to sell them on the deal, White House officials said. Many of those calls have gone to liberals, including Jayapal.

One of the main messages has been an echo of Biden’s often-used quote asking voters to compare him to the alternative, rather than to the Almighty.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said of the negotiated deal Tuesday. “Not everyone gets what they want, and that’s what negotiation looks like.”