Why McCarthy and Biden both stand to gain from the debt deal — if they can get it passed

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — Despite the sharp rhetoric leading up to last weekend’s debt and budget agreement, both House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden stand to benefit politically.

Biden and McCarthy and their aides were working feverishly Tuesday to make sure the deal doesn’t fail when it comes before the House on Wednesday.

McCarthy was especially active, trying to stem the spread of defections among hard-right conservatives, even as he projected confidence that the bill would pass before Monday’s deadline to avert a calamitous default on the nation’s debt.

The House Rules Committee, a crucial early test, agreed on a 7-6 vote to advance the pact. Two Republicans joined Democrats in voting no. The bill would raise the debt limit for two years in exchange for capping some spending and adding new work requirements for some safety net programs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated Tuesday that the measure would trim $1.5 trillion from the projected deficit over the next 10 years.

If the deal passes, McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican whose hold on the speakership began as one of the most tenuous in history, can claim he won concessions from a Democratic White House that few of his recent predecessors were able to achieve. Getting the votes on his side to cement the deal would also reinforce his standing with Biden as a credible negotiator who can deliver, despite the fractious nature of his party.

Biden, who has sold himself as a compromiser in a time of increasing hyper-partisanship, can make the case that he navigated a divided government.

Failure to pass a bill could sink both men’s political fortunes, especially if the nation defaults.

McCarthy’s biggest risk remains a challenge from the hard right that undid the last two Republican speakers, John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan. And that remains a persistent concern.

“McCarthy did the best that he could do to some extent with this deal,” Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, said at a news conference Tuesday of far-right Freedom Caucus members who oppose the deal. “But we made it clear at the outset of this Congress that we would not continue business as usual here in Washington, D.C.”

She and others at the news conference lambasted many of McCarthy’s biggest selling points — such as the trims to Biden’s plan to bolster the Internal Revenue Service and new limits on future spending — as “tokenism,” “chock-full of cosmetics” and a tool to pay for more “woke weaponized government.”

The official budget estimate, which came out later in the day, showed the proposed changes to eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would actually increase the number of Americans getting food stamps despite Republicans’ desire to curtail SNAP with new work requirements.

But only about 10 hard-line Republicans appeared with Boebert. McCarthy can make up for their loss with expected help from Democratic members.

But his claim over the weekend that the vast majority of Republican House members would support the deal appeared to be optimistic.

“Initially we heard that 95% of the House Republican Conference supports the agreement. That doesn’t appear to be the case,” said House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York. “But what we also are committed to making sure occurs is that the House Republicans keep their promise to produce at least 150 votes, period. Full stop.”

The biggest question for McCarthy apart from the immediate vote — and one that is likely to dog him as long as he remains the House’s top Republican — is whether Republicans will stick with him afterward. To win the job this year, he made a deal with party insurgents that allows just one lawmaker to force a vote on removing him.

Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., said Tuesday that he was considering the maneuver, known as a motion to vacate.

“If you can’t lead with credibility, how can you be the leader?” Bishop said in a separate interview with reporters.

But the deal appeals to less extreme members of both parties, and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., the No. 3 Republican, expressed confidence Tuesday that leaders would rally enough support to pass the bill without any help from Democrats despite his party’s slim governing margin.

In addition to averting economic catastrophe, the plan falls in line with what most Americans say they want, even if they do not understand the particulars of the lengthy budget document: compromise.

An overwhelming 70% of Americans want federal leaders to find common policy ground, according to a February PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll. That number was highest among Democrats (83%), followed by self-described independents (69%), the two groups Biden needs most as he begins a reelection campaign with dismal ratings on his personal approval.

The president’s electoral coalition contains a large group of centrists who wanted to see a more functional version of Washington after the rancor of the Trump years. It also includes progressives who are more leery of the debt compromise, especially the addition of new work requirements for some SNAP recipients, but are unlikely to leave the president or stay home in the next election.

David Axelrod, former President Barack Obama’s top political advisor, said it “burnishes his ability to tame an unruly process,” and fits in with Biden’s growing record of bipartisan accomplishment. Axelrod said it was worth it for Biden to negotiate with McCarthy over raising the nation’s debt limit, despite “agita on the part of his own base,” because of the larger risk to the overall economy.

“The most important political benefit is the absence of catastrophe,” Axelrod said. “I’m not sure this deal will be on the minds of voters in the fall of ’24. But an economic collapse of the sort default would have brought surely would have.”

Axelrod and other Democrats said Biden got about everything he could have expected in a divided government without losing much for his signature environmental and anti-poverty agenda.

Biden has let McCarthy serve as the public spokesperson for the deal, knowing that he has the harder sell.

“One of the things that I hear some of you guys saying is, ‘Why doesn’t Biden say what a good deal it is?'” the president told reporters Monday. “You think that’s going to help me get it passed? No. That’s why you guys don’t bargain very well.”

His budget director, Shalanda Young, emphasized the give-and-take aspect of the negotiations as she briefed reporters at the White House on Tuesday.

“I’ve worked in many divided government situations,” Young said. “This is where you would expect a bipartisan agreement to land. It’s just the reality. There’s not a unified government. They have ideas. We have to listen to them.”

She declined to say how many votes she expected McCarthy to deliver: “We’re going to leave that to them to work out the votes and how they get there.”

MCarthy’s sell is harder because many GOP lawmakers represent overwhelmingly Republican districts and have the most to fear from the party’s most conservative voters, who could vote them out in a primary election.

Even though a majority of Republicans (54%) want compromise, there is a sizable faction that doesn’t, and often holds veto power. The February Marist poll found 44% of Republicans said they wanted politicians to stand on principle, even if it creates more gridlock.


(Times staff writers Erin B. Logan and Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu contributed to this report.)