Kevin McCarthy is struggling to get House Republicans behind his debt ceiling bill

George Santos
Representative George Santos, a Republican from New York, speaks to members of the media outside criminal court in New York, US, on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.
Stephanie Keith—Bloomberg/Getty Images

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is coming up short in support for his first big legislative effort, a bill tying a debt ceiling increase to spending cuts, risking serious damage to both his stature and the US economy. 

McCarthy needs almost every GOP vote and several members remain noncommittal over concerns about anti-poverty benefits and biofuel tax credits and subsidies, according to people familiar with the counting. 

The speaker unveiled the proposal Wednesday in hopes of getting fresh leverage with President Joe Biden over the debt-limit debate, but holdouts — both conservative and moderate — have said McCarthy has not yet won them over on the details.

If McCarthy is unable to bring members to his side, he would likely pull the bill to avoid a humiliating defeat. But the speaker would still be left looking ineffectual at a time when he needs to demonstrate his relevance and any talks with Biden would be pushed closer to the default date, risking a US credit-rating downgrade.

In the end, McCarthy could be left watching the Democrats hash out a deal with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell without him.

McCarthy’s proposal would increase the nation’s debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion, in order to stave off a US payments default until March 31, 2024 at the latest. It aims to trim $4.5 trillion in spending over a decade in part by cutting discretionary spending by $130 billion next year and capping its growth at 1%. The bill, a grab bag of conservative measures, would ease energy regulations, end clean-energy tax breaks, rescind unspent Covid-19 funds and impose new work requirements on adults without children who receive Medicaid and food stamps.

But Biden and the White House want a clean, no-strings-attached increase to the debt limit. The top House Democrat, Hakeem Jeffries, called the bill a Republican “ransom note.” And even if passed, the McCarthy proposal is dead on arrival in the Senate. That said, passing it could spur Democrats into negotiations.

“We have to got to make our case that the president is being totally unreasonable to not show up at the negotiating table,” said bill sponsor Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington. “We have to have a united front and demonstrate we have 218 and we have a set of terms we are willing to negotiate.”

A win would let McCarthy enter those talks emboldened, showing he’s now able to wrangle votes from fellow Republicans, four months after needing 15 ballots to be elected Speaker.

Republicans now control the chamber by 222 seats to 213. That means McCarthy can’t succeed if more than four GOP members oppose the bill — if all House members vote and all Democrats oppose it. 

Dan Bishop, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, predicted McCarthy will get a bill passed.

“He has worked his butt off. He has listened very carefully and he has maneuvered well,” he said. Bishop said McCarthy learned lessons from the speaker’s gavel fight, by instituting regular discussions among House GOP factions.

But the risk of failure is real.  

Demands for Changes

Many House lawmakers have never voted for a debt ceiling increase and are skittish about taking a vote unpopular with the base that could hurt them in a GOP primary. 

A person familiar with the discussions said that some Midwestern Republicans have raised objections to the bill’s rollback of biofuel-related tax credits and subsidies.

Meanwhile, Freedom Caucus members are pushing to increase the proposed 20-hour per week work requirement for Medicaid and food stamps to 30 hours, a demand that turns off members in swing districts. South Carolina moderate Nancy Mace says she is leaning “no,” along with Republican George Santos of New York.

Moderate Problem Solvers Caucus leader Brian Fitzpatrick says he is undecided on the current package and doesn’t know when the caucus will unite behind one.

Fitzpatrick opposes any tougher work requirements than those already in the bill.

“I want to make sure the work requirements are buttoned up and nobody falls through the cracks,” he said. And, he noted, the Democratic-controlled Senate would be unlikely to pass more conservative measures.

–With assistance from Jarrell Dillard and Laura Litvan.

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