Debt Ceiling Deal Faces First Hurdle as McCarthy Works to Tamp Down Dissent

Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) holds a news conference at the Capitol on the status of the debt ceiling last week.

WASHINGTON – With just one more day to corral Republican support on a debt ceiling agreement, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy faced growing opposition from far-right members of his party Tuesday but remained confident he would be able to secure passage of the bipartisan bill.

Roughly a dozen members of the House Freedom Caucus took turns in a Capitol Hill news conference slamming McCarthy (R-Calif.) and the deal he brokered with President Biden over the weekend. And by the end of the day, roughly 30 GOP lawmakers had vowed to vote against the bill, which must clear the Senate and become law before Monday – the day the government would default on its debt without an extended borrowing cap.

“This is a career-defining vote for every Republican,” Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) said at the news conference. “Many more need to emerge [in opposition] if there is any path to salvaging what we began as a unified conference. … We’re prepared to stand up and take the slings and the arrows.”

Still, McCarthy played down criticism that he had failed to lock in enough spending cuts in the deal. And he held onto his optimism that the legislation would move through the House Rules Committee – a key procedural step before Wednesday’s full House vote and typically the first stop before legislation can go before the full House. Throughout the day, influential GOP members streamed in and out of McCarthy’s office as the speaker fought to keep his conference together.

“It’s the most conservative deal we ever had,” McCarthy told reporters.

McCarthy also waved off rumblings that far-right members of his conference would move to vacate him as speaker. On Tuesday, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) did not rule out that option and said he had “concerns” about McCarthy, who won the speakership in January after 15 rounds of voting and multiple concessions.

“I do think that there has to be some kind of acknowledgment that this has not been best for the country, not been best for the Republicans, not been best for our body,” Biggs said. During the Freedom Caucus news conference, Bishop alone raised his hand when lawmakers were asked if they supported a motion to vacate.

As the House Rules Committee convened Tuesday afternoon, most speakers acknowledged that the deal left both Democrats and Republicans unsatisfied. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) said he had yet to meet a single person who loved it.

“Perhaps that is a sign that it is a fair compromise between a narrowly Republican House and a narrowly Democratic Senate – and, of course, a Democratic White House,” he said.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, much attention was fixed on a handful of far-right Republicans on the Rules panel who could have thwarted the bill’s future. Two of the Rules Committee’s nine GOP members – Reps. Ralph Norman (S.C.) and Chip Roy (Tex.) – had already come out against the deal and McCarthy’s leadership.

“The Republican conference has been torn asunder,” Roy said at the Freedom Caucus news conference.

But committee member Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a libertarian-minded conservative who sometimes sides with the Freedom Caucus, indicated he would vote to move the bill forward. His vote would give Republicans enough support to adopt the rule, since the four Democrats on the committee weren’t expected to offer their support on the procedural step.

“It’s not our job to imprint an ideology,” Massie said during the committee meeting. “I think our job is to decide: Is this a process we’ve all agreed on?”

Across the Capitol, Senate leaders braced for what could turn into a long week or weekend, awaiting the House action and then maneuvering through their complex parliamentary procedures to finish up by Monday. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said there may be a weekend vote to get the legislation passed in time.

During the Senate Republican leadership meeting, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke positively of the deal and encouraged members to support it, according to an attendee. The attendee added that there was some concern among other senators about the defense number and questions about a provision related to continuing resolutions.

Other Senate leaders expressed their support for the legislation, despite opposition from the far right and left flanks of their caucuses, expecting to build a centrist coalition.

“We’re sorting through all of, but I’m glad Speaker McCarthy made some headway,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

The deal struck by Biden and McCarthy would raise the debt ceiling for two years – beyond the 2024 elections – allowing the government to pay its bills. In a concession to Republicans, the bill would limit domestic spending for two years and impose some new work requirements for certain individuals receiving food stamps and those in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The bill would fast-track a new natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia, a key goal of Republicans and a plan championed by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

“I think Speaker McCarthy did a great job,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said, expressing her support for the West Virginia energy project included in the bill. “These are wins.”

It also would pare back roughly $20 billion of the $80 billion approved last year for an expansion of the IRS, another concession to Republicans. And the bill would allow an increase in spending for defense, similar to what Biden requested in his budget March 9, as well as veterans affairs.

House lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill after an eventful holiday weekend in Washington. For days, debt ceiling negotiators from the GOP and White House clashed, and then compromised, until the eventual release of the 99-page bill Sunday evening. By that point, Republican and Democratic leaders were already in the thick of whipping support from their rank-and-file, holding conference calls and circulating talking points to tout their respective wins.

For the White House, the deal did not give into Republican demands for steep cuts on domestic spending, and it raised the debt ceiling beyond the 2024 election. Republicans, meanwhile, are celebrating an agreement that claws back some money for the IRS and increases some work requirements in federal aid programs, such as food stamps.

Asked whether he was confident that the debt ceiling deal would pass Congress, Biden on Monday replied, “I feel very good about it.” He said he had spoken with a number of lawmakers, including McConnell

As they worked the phones, party leadership urged their colleagues to move fast enough to assure passage by this coming Monday. In a statement from the Office of Management and Budget, the Biden administration urged Congress to pass the bill “as soon as possible to protect the full faith and credit of the United States.”

“I want to be clear: This agreement represents a compromise, which means no one gets everything that they want. And hard choices had to be made. Negotiations require a give and take. That’s the responsibility of governing,” said Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget and one of the White House’s key negotiators on the debt ceiling deal.

“When you enter into good faith negotiations, you don’t negotiate to see a bill posted. You negotiate to make sure it gets to the president’s desk and will fulfill our part when it gets to the president’s desk.”

To avoid a disastrous default, McCarthy would need the support of a “majority of the majority,” or at least half of the 222 Republicans in the House, even to bring the bill to the floor. He could lose up to 111 of his own party members but then would need up to 107 Democratic votes.

A handful of House Republicans, including Reps. Nancy Mace (S.C.), Kat Cammack (Fla.) and Wesley Hunt (Tex.) said Tuesday that they oppose the bill, underscoring the challenge McCarthy faces to round up the necessary votes even within his own party. The Republican Study Committee, which is the largest ideological faction of House Republicans, will not formally take a position on the debt compromise nor whip support for or against the bill, a sign that a majority of the 170 lawmakers could vote either way on it.

“Our expectation is that House Republicans will keep their promise and deliver at least 150 votes, as it relates to an agreement that they themselves negotiated with the White House,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday.