May 6, 2023 - Politics & Policy

GOP moderates privately panic over debt ceiling deal

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell outside the White House.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell listens as Kevin McCarthy, now the House speaker, speaks to reporters at the White House in 2021. On Tuesday, McCarthy, McConnell, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will discuss the debt ceiling with President Biden. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Some House Republicans are fretting about whether they'd be able to pass a watered-down version of their debt ceiling bill once the terms are negotiated with Senate Democrats and the White House, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: House moderates say House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and GOP leadership aren't doing enough to tamp down expectations with the right-wing Freedom Caucus — harming the chances for any compromise bill.

State of play: Several GOP lawmakers believe clawbacks to unspent COVID funding is the most realistic spending cut to remain in a Senate bill, with one GOP member referring to the House-passed debt ceiling bill as “a fairy tale” and “not real.”

  • But "there are people who actually think ... they're gonna get (the current House bill) and even more a year from now," a House Republican told Axios.
  • A Freedom Caucus member disputed that characterization, saying the "understanding is there ... that you might not get 100% of what the House passed, but we put Kevin in a very good negotiating position."

Behind the scenes: Despite the initial House GOP bill passing, several lawmakers told Axios the process has hurt their ability to move major pieces of legislation moving forward.

  • Three House Republicans told Axios there were major grievances from a portion of the conference over McCarthy’s decision to appoint Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) to play a leading role in rounding up votes — saying that deals made by McCarthy and Graves were not run by other key players.
  • Multiple members said they were irritated by promises made to Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) about movement on bills related to gun control, reproductive health and cannabis laws.
  • They also felt blindsided by changes on ethanol subsidies and work requirements for food stamps and Medicaid, despite repeatedly being told the bill wouldn't be changed.

The other side: McCarthy and Graves allies argued that the speaker is within his right to appoint who he best thinks will help get bills over the finish line.

  • "This looks messy but just look at the results — we got it done. It's better to have more people having points of contact than less," said a source close to leadership's thinking.
  • Sources in the House GOP conference meeting ahead of the House vote said McCarthy argued that the changes to the bill were technical fixes to clarify certain provisions, including the food-stamp work requirements.

What's next: President Biden and the top four leaders of Congress — McCarthy, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss a path forward on raising the government's debt ceiling.

  • Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that the government is weeks away from a catastrophic default if the debt ceiling isn't increased.
  • House Republicans have refused to agree on a debt ceiling increase unless budget cuts are imposed; Biden and other Democrats want the debt ceiling raised before budget talks begin.
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