Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy last week came up with a game plan in an effort to confront the Biden Administration on negotiations to deal with the approaching debt ceiling crisis. The two leaders met at the White House in February, but there have been no follow-up meetings since. Biden says the Congress needs to pass a “clean” debt ceiling increase, while the Speaker insists that the increase or suspension be part of a broader program aimed at reducing government spending.
The White House unveiled the President’s budget blueprint in early March, but there has been no corresponding budget laid out by the Republicans. Democrats have made the argument that it is hard to negotiate when only one side has released a budget. To deal with this asymmetry last week the Speaker put forward a Republican plan to increase the debt ceiling by $1.5T until March 31, 2024. The bill would be tied to $4.5B in program cuts that would take place over ten years. Since social security, Medicare and most defense programs are off the table, the Republican proposal takes a big hit at the remaining discretionary budget by reducing programs that range from child nutrition to energy programs to encourage wind and ethanol.
Republicans only hold a five-seat majority; hence the Speaker can only afford to lose four of his members as every Democrat will vote against the proposal. The math is tough for McCarthy but over the weekend he expressed confidence he can get his members to Yes.
However, the biggest problem the Republican leadership has is that there are many Republicans who just don’t want to vote to increase the debt ceiling. As one conservative Republican said: “my constituents didn’t send me to Washington to increase the debt ceiling.”
Little has changed in DC since long ago when I worked for Republican House Members. The Representative for whom I was Chief of Staff bluntly told the leadership that they should never count on his vote in increasing the debt ceiling. The principal political problem Republicans have is that a vote to increase the debt ceiling is nearly impossible to defend in a Republican primary when the opponent is running to the right of the incumbent and charging that the vote to increase the debt ceiling is a root cause of Washington’s problems.
Recent polling has identified the difficulty Republicans face. A PBS/Marist College poll showed that only 26% of Republicans favored raising the debt ceiling. This makes a YES vote on any debt ceiling bill a steep climb for Republicans.
In 2011 when President Obama needed to increase the debt ceiling and faced a newly elected Republican House Speaker in John Boehner they walked right up to the precipice of a default and in the end came up with a compromise that increased the ceiling and both sides committed to spending cuts. That vote on the compromise is instructive for the current crisis. The final House vote on the Obama/Boehner deal was 285 to 144. All 144 NO votes came from Republicans. On this vote Speaker McCarthy can only lose four votes.
In addition to the conservative members who have a difficult time voting for any debt ceiling increase, there are some moderate Republican House members who have a tough time cutting popular programs. There are 18 House Republicans that represent seats that Biden carried in 2020; deep cuts in popular programs could create a big headache for their re-election campaigns.
Another concern that has emerged for the Republican leaders as they line up support for this week’s vote is the cuts in the energy programs that Congress passed last year as part of the Democrats’ signature program, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Clean energy tax provisions were a central part of the bill, and while no Republican voted for the legislation, their constituents like some of the provisions such as breaks for ethanol and wind energy.
Republicans have a solid block of House members who come from the Midwest where ethanol has been a big plus for corn farmers, and the winds that blow over the central plains have created great opportunities for wind energy. Renewables have become unfashionable among some of the Republican base, but in the Midwest they have opened up some new opportunities.
Bottom line: Speaker McCarthy needs to change the discussion by putting a Republican budget plan on the table and then trying to force President Biden to sit down and talk about it. The bill the Republicans have proposed for this week is a critical first step for the strategy. But with only a five-seat majority there is little room for error, and with deep skepticism among conservative Republicans about any debt increase, and others who worry about cuts in programs that hit close to home, it is going to be a tough week for McCarthy and his leadership team. However, McCarthy and team have a lot riding on this vote and believe that the undecided Members will break their way.
The 15 votes it took to get McCarthy elected Speaker show the challenge Republicans have to get a majority within their caucus and winning the debt ceiling vote is possible but not a certainty.