Folks like Alex Shephard at TNR continue to believe that Kevin McCarthy and the House GOP are trying to run a hostage negotiation and that they are doing it badly, and while that would be true if McCarthy was actually trying to play the standard Washington kabuki script, that's not what is actually going on.
McCarthy has been more or less open about the fact that this is not a real bill. “This bill is to get us to the negotiations,” he said on Tuesday. “It is not the final provisions, and there’s a number of members who will vote for it going forward to say there are some concerns they have with it. But they want to make sure the negotiation goes forward because we are sitting at $31 trillion of debt.”
This bill may get the Republican Party to those negotiations over raising the debt limit, which must be done by early June or the United States will face potentially calamitous economic consequences. It’s hard to assess what the outcome of potential negotiations will be, especially since the White House’s position is “Send a clean debt limit bill, or pound sand.” What is clear, however, is that this bill is a disaster for Republicans.
It is not being treated that way everywhere. The New York Times’ Carl Hulse, who should know better, described it as “a narrow win but a win for Speaker Kevin McCarthy nonetheless.” Politico’s Playbook, meanwhile, declared that this was a coronation of sorts, an occasion in which McCarthy “proved his naysayers wrong.” I suppose if you squint a certain way, you can see it, but these laurels should actually be seen as participation trophies.
Sure, if McCarthy had failed to get anything across the line he would have looked completely incompetent, even by the standards of recent Republican House leaders. Nevertheless, a bill filled with devastating cuts and manifestly unpopular positions is arguably worse than getting anything done at all. The GOP passed a messaging bill that provides Democrats with the better message, something that they can use to hurt the GOP in swing districts for the next two years; a bill that shows that Republicans’ ultimate goal is to gut health care and food stamps and education—and even veterans benefits. There is no universe in which a clean bill, raising the debt ceiling and moving on, isn’t more politically advantageous for the GOP.
The whole sorry episode has only shown that Kevin McCarthy just isn’t good at this. It’s never been entirely clear why he wanted to be speaker of the House in the first place. It’s always been clear, however, that he is not up to the task. To gain the gavel, McCarthy had to make a series of humiliating, enfeebling concessions to his far-right flank that more or less disempowered him. Now, put in a position where he needed to get something done, he once again had to cave to the same right flank—indeed, it was Matt Gaetz, who had previously relished holding back McCarthy’s ascendence to the speakership, who forced him to add more draconian Medicaid work requirements to the bill.
McCarthy essentially wakes up every morning conscripted into a race to the bottom by those in his party with the worst political instincts and ideas. This should not be particularly surprising to McCarthy, but his abject supplication is nevertheless notable. This bill does not matter. It will not pass. It is not intended to pass. Republicans had an opportunity to aim a productive salvo at swing voters, the better to convince them that GOP majorities can deliver prosperity, and giving them some sign that the party was tacking back from the heights of extremism that alienated voters in the last midterm elections. Instead, the message being sent is that the party is all about owning the libs and slashing aid for veterans and the poor. The GOP can’t even fake being a party interested in governing anymore. That’s bad news for the man stuck presiding over this clown show.
“However you want to frame it, we’ve got to sit down and talk. And so I think it’s critically important that all the parties sit down, at the White House with the president, and start having these conversations. And they should meet every single day until they get there, together,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, told reporters Friday.
But those House Democrats, having lost the majority in last November’s elections, lack the leverage to actually start such talks. Instead, from the relatively moderate Coons to a fiery liberal like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Senate Democrats view even a modest concession, such as a relatively powerless debt commission, as a reward for taking this hostage.
“The problem with that approach is that it signals to the rest of the world that America’s commitment to paying its debts is contingent on some underlying political negotiation over spending that is otherwise too damn contentious to get through on its own,” Warren told reporters Thursday.
But this Democratic approach seems to assure that little will happen until the deadline draws perilously close and then, at that momentous hour, assumes House Republicans will cave out of fear for getting blamed for tanking the economy.
That strategy, so far, is nowhere close to working. House Republicans in swing districts are digging in for a protracted fight and expressing little interest in passing a so-called clean debt hike. They are demanding spending cuts that will begin to rein in the debt.
“It’s certain that if we don’t raise the debt ceiling our economy will crash, but if we don’t do things to limit spending, our economy will also crash,” said Rep. Nick LaLota, one of six New York Republicans on the Democratic target list for next year’s elections. “Reasonable people should adopt that dual-pronged understanding.”
“We have to negotiate. Passing a clean debt ceiling [hike] is not going to happen. He’s going to have to meet us partway,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), whose district favored Biden by 6 percentage points in 2020, recently told reporters.
Democrats also seem to be betting that Senate Republicans will step in as more mature political actors and defuse this situation, but even one of the most productive dealmakers is supporting McCarthy’s approach.
“This bill is not the final deal, but it opens the door for a negotiated deal,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said Thursday.
Cassidy noted that in past fiscal showdowns, the perceived victor tended to be the one that made the other party look most reckless.
“Partly the public perception of this is going to be really important,” he said.
Republicans believe they can win the political standoff by making Biden and Democrats look petty by refusing a basic negotiation. Fresh off his narrow win on his debt bill, McCarthy held a valedictory news conference Wednesday evening in Statuary Hall.
“The Democrats need to do their job. The president can no longer ignore [us] by not negotiating,” McCarthy said.