House Democrats are hoping Republicans’ internal clashes over the size and substance of their budget-cutting plans will lend President Biden a tactical boost in the looming fights over the debt ceiling and government spending.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has, for months, demanded that Biden negotiate steep spending cuts and other policy concessions as a condition of winning GOP support for raising the debt limit and preventing a government default.
But as Congress is set to return to Washington this week, Republicans have been roiled by internal sniping, and GOP leaders are scrambling to unite the restive conference behind a list of specific deficit-reduction demands to take into the debt ceiling talks.
The absence of those specifics has only fueled Biden’s insistence that Congress pass a “clean” debt ceiling increase without any extraneous provisions. And from the sidelines, the president’s House allies say the GOP divisions also give him a tactical advantage to hold his ground — a posture they’re vowing to back.
“President Biden’s position is unequivocal, and I think it’s right,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a senior member of the Budget Committee. “He’s not going to debate against himself; he’s not going to deal with hypotheticals; he’s not going to take the bait until they do their job. They claim certain objectives with the budget, and they ought to produce a budget that shows them.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) delivered a similar message, noting that Biden has introduced his 10-year budget plan with nothing yet to counter it.
“I really can’t blame the president for saying, ‘I’ll talk, but I put out a budget. And if you want to have a conversation, what is in your budget? What are we going to talk about?’” she said. “I can’t picture how they actually get this done.”
McCarthy is walking a fine line. If he accepts a compromise with Biden to prevent a default, he risks the ire of conservatives who could seek to oust him from the Speakership. If he holds the conservative line in demanding steep spending cuts — a non-starter with Democrats in the Senate and White House — it could lead to the first Treasury default in the nation’s history, triggering economic damage that could haunt Republicans in the 2024 elections.
Across the aisle, Democrats are hardly sympathetic, saying McCarthy put himself in an impossible position in granting a long string of promises to his far-right flank in return for their support for his Speakership.
“Kevin McCarthy made contradictory promises he knew would be impossible to keep in his quest to do whatever it took to become Speaker after 15 rounds of voting,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (Pa.), senior Democrat on the Budget panel, said in an email. “GOP dysfunction is uniquely dangerous to our economy and Americans’ livelihoods as we creep closer and closer to breaching the debt ceiling.”
Heading into the debate, the sides remain miles apart.
Biden and the Democrats are quick to note that raising the debt limit does not allocate new federal spending, but only empowers the government to borrow the funds necessary to pay obligations already approved by Congress. With that in mind, they’re demanding a stand-alone debt-ceiling hike divorced from the fight over future government outlays.
“That conversation must be separate from prompt action on the Congress’ basic obligation to pay the Nation’s bills and avoid economic catastrophe,” Biden wrote to McCarthy late last month.
Republicans counter that the national debt, at more than $31 trillion, is a threat to the country’s future prosperity, and Congress must act immediately to rein in deficit spending. They’re insisting that Biden commit to such a plan as part of the debt ceiling talks.
“I don’t understand why he thinks the debt ceiling just gets raised,” McCarthy jabbed at Biden just before the long recess.
But the GOP’s ultimatum has been compromised by internal party disagreements about the details of their deficit-reduction strategy, including whether to target Pentagon spending, how to approach work-requirements, and whether McCarthy should be held to one of the central promises of his Speakership bid: a vote on a 10-year balanced budget.
“We have some issues in terms of where are we going from a policy standpoint,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) told CNN last week. “We’ve got to show the American people that we have ideas that … are supported by folks on both sides of the aisle.”
Compounding those policy problems are personal tensions that have reportedly been simmering all year between McCarthy and his Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas). According to a recent report in The New York Times, Arrington had floated Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) as a possible Speaker alternative in the middle of McCarthy’s struggle to secure the gavel in January. The move infuriated McCarthy, who has since tapped Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) — not Arrington — with a leading role on debt ceiling strategy.
The combination of factors has forced McCarthy into the difficult position of navigating the debate with neither specific demands nor a unified conference to support him — at least so far.
“The clock’s ticking, and they don’t have a coherent message because they don’t have a coherent plan,” said Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), another senior member of the Budget Committee.
Returning to Washington this week, GOP leaders are signaling that that will change. Already some of the key groups involved in the negotiations, like the Main Street Caucus, have proposed deficit-reduction plans. Others, including the Republican Study Committee (RSC), are set to follow in the coming weeks. And GOP leaders are also expected to unveil their budget-cutting wishlist as early as this week.
“Don’t be critical of a balanced budget unless you do your own,” Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), head of the RSC, said as Congress left town.
Complicating the debate, lawmakers are taking aim at a moving target. While the Treasury Department has said the agency could reach the end of its borrowing authority as early as June, that deadline could be pushed several months further, depending on the level of tax receipts the IRS collects as payments for 2022 come due this month.
As the deadline — whatever it is — approaches, moderate lawmakers in both parties have launched talks of their own in search of a bipartisan deal that could act as a backstop if McCarthy and Biden fail to break their long impasse and reach a deal. More liberal Democrats, though, aren’t holding their breath.
“What we saw for Kevin McCarthy to get to be the Speaker — he had to basically sell his soul to the most difficult [lawmakers] within his caucus — the far-right members,” Schakowsky said. “So I just don’t know where our consensus is going to come from.”