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Facing backlash, Speaker McCarthy hunts for GOP votes for debt limit deal in time to prevent default

President Joe Biden meets with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., to discuss the debt limit in the Oval Office of the White House, May 22, 2023, in Washington.

WASHINGTON — Under fire from conservatives, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy worked furiously Tuesday to sell fellow Republicans on the debt ceiling and budget deal he negotiated with President Joe Biden and win approval in time to avert a potentially disastrous U.S. default.

Leaders of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus lambasted the compromise as falling well short of the spending cuts they demand, and they vowed to try to halt passage by Congress. A much larger conservative faction, the Republican Study Committee, declined to take a position. Even rank-and-file centrist conservatives were not sure, leaving McCarthy desperately hunting for votes.

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The House Rules Committee voted 7-6 Tuesday to advance a bill dealing with the federal debt ceiling to the full House, with two Republicans joining Democrats to oppose.

The full House is expected to vote Wednesday.

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With tough days ahead, the speaker went into overtime, assembling lawmakers behind closed doors Tuesday evening at the Capitol, after publicly urging skeptical GOP colleagues to “look at where the victories are.” Earlier, he said on “Fox and Friends” that “There’s nothing in the bill for” Democrats — hardly a helpful statement for Biden.

In one late development, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the spending restrictions in the package would reduce deficits by $1.5 trillion over the decade, a top goal for the Republicans trying to curb the debt load.

But in a surprise that could further erode Republican support, the GOP’s drive to impose work requirements on older Americans receiving food stamps ends up boosting spending by $2.1 billion over the time period. That’s because the final deal exempted veterans and homeless people, expanding the food stamp rolls by some 78,000 people monthly, the CBO said.

McCarthy brushed past questions about the mounting opposition, saying “everybody is elected” to have their own vote.

A key test was coming later Tuesday, when the House Rules Committee was to consider the 99-page bill and vote on sending it to the full House for a vote expected Wednesday evening.

Quick approval by both the House and Senate would ensure government checks will continue to go out to Social Security recipients, veterans and others, and prevent financial upheaval worldwide by allowing Treasury to keep paying U.S. debts.

The deal would restrict spending over the next two years, but it includes environmental policy changes and expanded work requirements for some older food aid recipients that Democrats strongly oppose.

With few lawmakers expected to be fully satisfied, Biden and McCarthy are counting on pulling majority support from the political center, a rarity in divided Washington, to prevent a federal default. Some 218 votes are needed for passage in the 435-member House.

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House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said it was up to McCarthy to turn out votes from some two-thirds of the Republican majority, a high bar the speaker may not be able to reach. Still, Jeffries said the Democrats would do their part to avoid failure.

“It is my expectation that House Republicans would keep their promise and deliver at least 150 votes as it relates to an agreement that they themselves negotiated,” Jeffries said. “Democrats will make sure that the country does not default.”

McCarthy could expect no help from the far right.

“This deal fails, fails completely, and that’s why these members and others will be absolutely opposed to the deal,” Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said, flanked by others outside the Capitol. “We will do everything in our power to stop it.”

Ominously, the conservatives warned of potentially trying to oust McCarthy over the compromise.

“There’s going to be a reckoning,” said Rep. Chip Roy of Texas.

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Liberal Democrats decried the new work requirements for older Americans, those 50-54, in the food aid program. And some Democratic lawmakers were leading an effort against a surprise provision to greenlight a controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline natural gas project through Appalachia.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she appreciated that Biden was able to minimize the “extreme demands” Republicans made on spending, but she raised serious concerns about the food stamps and other environmental policy changes.

She also had this warning for McCarthy: “He got us here and it’s on him to deliver the votes.”

Biden spent part of the Memorial Day holiday working the phones, calling lawmakers in both parties.

“I feel very good about it,” Biden told reporters Monday, adding he had also spoken to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, a past partner in big bipartisan deals who largely has been sitting this one out.

Wall Street was taking a wait-and-see approach. Stock prices were mixed in Tuesday’s trading. U.S. markets had been closed when the deal was struck over the weekend.

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Overall, the package is a tradeoff that would impose some federal spending reductions for the next two years along with a suspension of the debt limit into January 2025, pushing the volatile political issue past the next presidential election. Raising the debt limit, now $31.4 trillion, would allow Treasury to continue borrowing to pay the nation’s already incurred bills.

All told, it would hold spending essentially flat for the coming year, while allowing increases for military and veterans accounts. It would cap growth at 1% for 2025.

Policy issues were raising the most objections.

Questions were also being raised about the unexpected provision that essentially would give congressional approval to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural gas project important to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that many Democrats and others oppose as unhelpful in fighting climate change.

The top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, said including the pipeline provision was “disturbing and profoundly disappointing.”

But Manchin on Tuesday touted the pipeline project as something “we know we need.”

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The House aims to vote Wednesday and send the bill to the Senate, where Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and McConnell are working for passage by week’s end.

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Schumer called the bill a “sensible compromise.” McConnell said McCarthy “deserves our thanks.”

Senators, who have remained largely on the sidelines during much of the negotiations between the president and the House speaker, began inserting themselves more forcefully into the debate.

Some senators are insisting on amendments to reshape the package from both the left and right flanks. That could require time-consuming debates that delay final approval of the deal.

For one, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia planned to file an amendment to remove the pipeline provision.

But making any changes to the package at this stage seemed unlikely with so little time to spare. Congress and the White House are racing to meet the Monday deadline now less than a week away. That’s when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the U.S. would run short of cash and face an unprecedented debt default without action.

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A default would almost certainly harm the U.S. economy and spill around the globe, as the world’s reliance on the stability of the American dollar and the country’s leadership fell into question.

Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani, Seung Min Kim, Farnoush Amiri, Darlene Superville and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.


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