Leaving drama behind, GOP warms to McCarthy in debt fight

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FILE - Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, April 20, 2023. McCarthy is working to round up the Republican votes needed to pass his debt ceiling package. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON – The last Republican holdout in the grueling race for Kevin McCarthy to become House speaker, firebrand Rep. Matt Gaetz, may be a surprisingly easier vote to get when it comes to passing the House Republican plan to raise the debt ceiling.

That's because the 320-page debt ceiling package McCarthy has drafted includes many long-sought conservative priorities — a rollback of current spending levels, a cap on future spending, work requirements for government aid recipients — that Gaetz, the House Freedom Caucus and other factions demanded.

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Rather than drag McCarthy down with painstaking internal party battles over the debt ceiling bill, House Republican lawmakers are looking to prop up their leader, get behind the bill and take the spending fight to President Joe Biden at the White House.

“I’m not looking to spit in the face of the gift horse,” Gaetz, R-Fla., told reporters at the Capitol as he weighs how he will vote.

“If you took this plan, and the plan that the House Freedom Caucus laid out some weeks ago, and held them up to a lamp, you would see a lot of alignment,” he said.

What seemed almost politically impossible just a few short months ago, when House Republicans were nearly coming to blows on the chamber floor, now appears surprisingly on track as McCarthy pushes, prods and pulls his slim majority to coalesce around a debt ceiling plan ahead of next week’s expected vote.

Republican lawmakers, some who have never before voted to raise the nation’s debt limit, now are seriously considering doing just that. They say McCarthy has built up goodwill by listening to — and accepting — many of their proposals. Rather than fight amongst themselves, they want to force Biden to the negotiating table.

To be sure, McCarthy does not yet have the 218 votes in hand for passage. The GOP leadership team is furiously whipping the tally ahead of next week’s vote. Many Republicans are wavering, and the proposal is expected to win almost no votes from Democrats, all but dead on arrival in the Senate.

Biden said the “wacko” ideas in the Republican plan would hurt Americans. Biden's senior advisers have doubted the speaker will be able to bring the bill to passage.

Even though the Republican package has almost no chance of becoming law, it is a political strategy designed to put an offer on the table. Republicans want to shift the blame and draw a reluctant White House into negotiations Biden has refused to have over the debt ceiling. In some ways, this is the easy part, with the real lift still to come.

“I think we’re in very good shape,” McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Thursday.

McCarthy scoffed at the political drama ahead of the upcoming vote. “I want you to see as the clock goes up, I want you to write stories like, I’m teetering, whether I can win or not, and the whole world hangs in the balance," he said sarcastically. "And then I want you to write a story after it passes, Would the president sit down and negotiate?”

The package is a wish-list of conservative priorities. In exchange for lifting the debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion into March 2024, it would roll back federal spending to fiscal 2022 levels and slap a 1% cap on future federal spending increases, in what Democrats argue would become painful cuts to programs and services Americans rely on.

Additionally, the Republican plan would impose stricter work requirements for recipients of food stamps, Medicaid and direct cash assistance, and rescind Biden’s plans to relieve up to $20,000 in individual student loan debt.

The proposal from Republicans would repeal funds to bolster the Internal Revenue Service to audit tax cheats and do away with Biden's signature tax breaks to fight climate change. It adds Republican plans to boost oil, gas and coal production and ease regulations for permitting pipelines and other energy projects.

“This week has once again been clarifying in terms of what the extreme MAGA Republicans are all about,” said Democratic Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

Jeffries expects all Democrats to vote against it. “I haven't spoken to a single person yet that supports the extreme MAGA Republican proposal,” he said.

For the House Republicans, just as important as the policy they crafted are the optics of managing their new majority: They don’t want to be seen in chaos and disarray, as they were at the start of the year with the speaker's vote.

“It’s important for the American people to know that Republicans can lead,” said Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., the chairman of the powerful Republican Study Committee.

Hern said he personally texted all 175 members of the Republican Study Committee last weekend, explaining the contours of the emerging plan ahead of its roll out, and heard no opposition. The consensus, he said, was they wanted to “get it done."

Republicans have historically been blamed for the federal shutdowns and standoffs that have punctuated the budget battles ever since the tea party came to Congress after the 2010 election and launched a new era of brinksmanship over raising the debt ceiling.

That battle led to the 2011 debt ceiling crisis that resulted in the first ever downgrade of the nation’s credit rating when House Republicans, under then Speaker John Boehner, and the White House failed to reach a deal. Boehner later chose early retirement.

The nation's debt is now $31 trillion. For now, the Treasury Department says it is taking “extraordinary measures” to keep paying the bills. But money is expected to run out by summer. The borrowing limit needs to be raised to avoid a potentially devastating default on already accrued debt.

Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., was among those sitting in the back rows during McCarthy’s grueling fight to become House speaker, the history-making weeklong showdown that finally settled on the 15th vote.

Burchett says he’s never voted to raise or suspend the debt ceiling — not during the Trump era and certainly not with Biden.

But as he looks over the package — he has another meeting scheduled with McCarthy's leadership team next week — he is seriously considering his vote.

“I’m leaning, but I’m still a no,” Burchett said Thursday. “They're counting heads and they’re very close.”

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