Liberals and conservatives are balking at the emerging debt ceiling agreement between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — a development that may complicate life for party leaders over the long term, but also signals progress in the immediate effort to prevent a government default.
Biden’s liberal allies are fuming that the nascent deal cuts too much. Members of McCarthy’s far-right faction say it cuts too little.
And if the gripes sound familiar, it’s because they echo those that accompanied debt ceiling fights of years past, when the ideological edges of both parties peeled away, leaving a bipartisan coalition of centrists and leadership allies to move the compromise through the House.
In a divided Washington, that formula is likely the only recipe for raising the debt ceiling this year, as well. And lawmakers in both parties are keenly aware of it.
“I’m convinced that if Biden and McCarthy shake hands, you’re gonna get a big majority of the majority, and you’re going to get a majority of the minority,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said. “And we’ll get 218.”
Both parties began the debate pushing for their dream proposals. For Biden, that was a “clean” debt limit hike, without anything attached. Republicans, meanwhile, hyped their legislative package — passed last month — which combined a $1.5 trillion debt ceiling increase with roughly $4.8 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade. Neither went far.
As the talks have evolved, both sides have given ground. And McCarthy said Wednesday that discussions this week between the White House and his GOP deputies — including a meeting on Wednesday afternoon — have yielded “some progress.”
But that progress has been met with frustration on both sides of the aisle.
From the left, Biden is facing liberals up in arms that he’s been open to new work requirements for social benefit programs; has stopped short of demanding tax hikes; and has offered a spending freeze for next year, which many Democrats deem a cut when inflation is factored in.
“My red line has already been surpassed,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a member of the liberal Squad. “I mean, where do we start? [No] clean debt ceiling. Work requirements. Cuts to programs. I would never — I would never — vote for that.”
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) delivered a similar warning. Asked if she could support a debt limit bill with tougher work requirements, she didn’t miss a beat.
“Absolutely not,” she said.
On the right, members of McCarthy’s hard right faction are sounding similarly exasperated — for the opposite reason. They fear the Speaker has gone too far in watering down the GOP’s debt limit bill, which on top of steep spending cuts had also included provisions to claw back billions of dollars in IRS funding, repeal green energy subsidies and empower Congress to reject White House regulations impacting industry.
“Each are critical and none should be abandoned solely for the quest of a ‘deal,’” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) wrote Wednesday in a four-page memo, which urged McCarthy to “hold the line.”
Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) said he’s already decided how he’ll come down.
“I’m gonna still vote against it because I’m against raising the debt ceiling,” he said.
In a counterintuitive way, the criticisms suggest that negotiators are moving closer to a bipartisan deal that can pass through both chambers and become law.
Any proposal that could win the support of Roy and Burchett would likely include spending cuts too sharp — and policy provisions too confrontational — to pass through the Democratic-led Senate or secure Biden’s signature. A bill embraced by Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, meanwhile, would likely never reach the floor of a House controlled by McCarthy and his Republican majority.
“We’re going to lose some Democrats, we’re going to lose some Republicans,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a member of the moderate Problem Solvers Caucus, said Wednesday in an interview with CNN, where he predicted a vote within a week. “And frankly, if that’s what happens, that’s probably in the best interest of the country.”
Bacon, a member of the moderate Problem Solvers Caucus, said some of the Republican grumbling reflects the simple fact that many conservatives pride themselves on opposing any debt limit increase, and are eager to do so again after voting in April for the Republican debt ceiling package.
Another group, he said, is just in denial about the workings of Washington under a divided government.
“They want perfection,” Bacon said. “And you can get that if you’re a parliament, [but] we’re not a parliament. We’re a bicameral, divided government. And it’s really about optimizing.
“But not everybody agrees with me.”
If the formula for passing a bipartisan bill is clear, the substance of the legislation is not.
GOP negotiators returned from the White House Wednesday evening saying there was no deal. And Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, predicted the panel would not meet to mark up the debt limit legislation until Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.
As the sides continue their talks, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) announced the House would recess on Thursday, as scheduled, for the long holiday weekend, but lawmakers should brace for a quick return to vote on an agreement.
“They’re making progress but still don’t have a final deal,” Scalise said.
Heading into what could be the final stretch of negotiations, leery liberals are intensifying their pressure on Biden and the White House to hold their ground, particularly when it comes to spending cuts that are sure to impact federal programs that Democrats treasure.
“We’re not going to take a deal that hurts working people,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Wednesday during a press briefing, where she was joined by more than a dozen members of the group. “We’ve been very clear about that.”
Across the aisle, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is sending the opposite message, warning GOP leaders not to stray too far from the House-passed bill.
“My conservative colleagues for the most part support, ‘Limit, Save, Grow,’ and they don’t feel like we should negotiate with our hostage,” Gaetz told Semafor on Tuesday.
Hanging over the debate is a lingering threat to McCarthy’s Speakership. In January, he had agreed to changes in House rules making it easier to remove a Speaker from power, which has heightened the odds that such a challenge would surface if McCarthy were to stage a vote on a debt ceiling bill loathed by his conservative wing.
To be successful, however, that effort would require a vast majority of Democrats to join forces with the Speaker’s GOP detractors. And Phillips said a group of moderate Democrats would help McCarthy keep his gavel in that instance.
Some liberals feel the same way.
“Nobody wins with this face-off. And to throw McCarthy out right now in the middle of this is not likely to be a better outcome,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a member of the Progressive Caucus. “I mean, he’s kind of an empty vessel, but he’s what we’ve got. And adding continued instability with leadership is not a constructive development.
“Democrats are not going to try to blow the place up.”
Mychael Schnell contributed reporting.