The great debt ceiling negotiation of 2023 is over. The House Republican majority made an historic achievement leading the debate.
The great debt ceiling negotiation of 2023 is over.
People will argue over how much the House Republicans got and how much President Joe Biden got in the final details of the legislation.
What people cannot refute is the narrow House Republican majority’s historic achievement of leading the debate in a city dominated by Democrats.
As I describe in my new book, “March to the Majority,” when we won in 1994, we had the momentum of the Contract with America. We had created a Republican tsunami which gained 54 seats in the House, led to Republican control of the Senate, and picked up Republican governorships and state legislatures across the country. Our 230-seat majority – and the emotional and psychological momentum of the first House GOP majority in 40 years – gave us legitimacy to force reforms. Speaker Kevin McCarthy didn’t start with that kind of momentum, but he has succeeded anyway.
The House Republicans won a narrow 222-213 majority in the 2022 election. Losing any five Republican votes with a unified Democrat minority makes governing impossible. Furthermore, Democrats still control the Senate.
The most likely outcome of this balance of power would normally be a House GOP majority that could not pass a debt ceiling increase. That failure would have legitimized the establishment media’s demand that Congress must pass a so-called clean debt ceiling (with no amendments or reforms).
Clearly, this is what President Biden and Democrat Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer thought would happen. It is what the establishment corporate media thought would happen.
The decisive change came when Speaker McCarthy was able to pass the Limit, Save, Grow Act on April 26 by a 217 to 215 vote – with four Republicans voting no and Democrats unanimously opposed. The bill was scored as a $4.8 trillion dollar reduction in spending and was filled with conservative policy changes.
Considering that only three and a half months earlier it had taken 15 ballots to elect McCarthy Speaker, there was a lot of shock that he had been able to get a bill drafted that could bring together 97 percent of the House GOP Conference.
With the passage of the Limit, Save, Grow Act, Washington was profoundly changed. Suddenly, the House Republicans had produced a bill which raised the debt ceiling in a responsible way. Since the American people overwhelmingly favor spending cuts with any debt ceiling increase, the tide of public opinion was with McCarthy.
Senate Republicans played a key role in shifting the balance of power toward Speaker McCarthy and House Republicans. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has played a major role in many debt ceiling fights. The establishment media assumed he would step in and cut a deal with his former Senate colleague, President Biden. Instead, McConnell announced that McCarthy had earned the right to be the lead negotiator. Then, 43 Senate Republicans (including McConnell) signed a letter pledging to never support cloture for a debt ceiling increase without reforms. This rendered Senate Democrats irrelevant and forced President Biden to focus on negotiating with Speaker McCarthy.
President Biden was faced with a problem he and his party created. The House GOP debt ceiling reform bill was popular. Biden’s position of a debt ceiling increase with no changes was supported by only 24 percent of the country.
President Biden then compounded his weakness by refusing to negotiate. He made non-negotiation a matter of principle. The American people are tired of constant Washington bickering, and McCarthy understood this. Every day, McCarthy made clear he was eager to talk – and was disappointed that President Biden wouldn’t. Openly wanting to negotiate became McCarthy’s second winning issue.
President Biden and Democrats set themselves up for a failure and gave Speaker McCarthy these two initial wins.
Each step of public intransigence by the Biden team strengthened McCarthy’s position – among the American people and the House Republican Conference. McCarthy had lived through Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan gradually losing control of their conferences. He knew how dangerous this strategy was, and he was determined to keep the maximum number of Republicans together. Ultimately, he got over two-thirds of the House Republicans to vote for a debt ceiling increase despite the noise on the right from some outside groups and media.
The scale of this achievement is illustrated by a Washington Post story from Jan. 20. It explained that under Democrat Presidents, House Republican majorities supported debt ceiling increases by an average of 24 percent – and in some cases only 16 percent. Speaker McCarthy moved that percentage to over 67 percent. This is an historic accomplishment in leadership.
McCarthy’s victory was strategic. In an excellent analysis in Punchbowl News, Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan noted that the House Republican victory was a result of strategy and discipline. They outlined key areas in which McCarthy was simply different from his predecessors.
Speaker McCarthy planned this fight for months. He knew it was inevitable. And he knew it could set him up to get things done – or to endure chaos. He worked diligently toward the former.
Sherman and Bresnahan noted that McCarthy worked the news media constantly unlike earlier Republican speakers. They also praised his ability to stick to the strategic level while delegating policy and negotiations to people well-suited for the jobs. He was the team leader – not the entire team.
They disagree with the critics who think this bill did not accomplish anything. As they put it:
“It gave McCarthy and Capitol Hill Republicans a slew of policy victories. It cuts spending — all with McCarthy’s party controlling just one lever of power. McCarthy entered the negotiations in February with little-to-no leverage and emerged with some wins.”
Speaker McCarthy has already begun an historic speakership.
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