May 20, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Biden and McCarthy's shared math problem

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Behind the deep philosophical differences between President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy lies a more mundane issue — how to get any deal through the House.

Zoom in: The White House seized on Friday's breakdown in debt ceiling talks to argue for its preferred approach to a deal — a bipartisan bill that will rely on a big chunk of Democratic votes. Talks restarted Friday night after Republicans announced a "pause" earlier in the day.

  • Some Biden allies argue that working backwards from 218 — the number of votes needed to pass a bill in the House — is a way out of the ideological staredown. Start from the center. Build out.
  • Deciding what's in a potential deal becomes more of a coalition math problem than an ideological one.
  • “It’s one thing to strike a deal, then you got to pass it,” said Will Dunham, McCarthy’s former top policy adviser and now a lobbyist at Brownstein.

Zoom out: Finding a deal in the center is possible, but it carries real risks for both leaders.

  • Biden will have angry progressives on his hands and McCarthy could see his speakership in jeopardy.
  • "There is no question, we have serious differences," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said early Saturday morning in Japan. "This is going to be a difficult conversation."

On the fiscal front, a key GOP priority is to slow discretionary spending — the portion of the federal budget that doesn't include programs like Social Security and Medicare.

  • In their opening bid in the House GOP's Limit Save and Growth Act, Republicans called for capping discretionary spending for the next fiscal year at FY 2022 levels and then limiting future growth at 1%.
  • That adds up to some $3.2 trillion in savings over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
  • The White House claims that these spending cuts will harm veterans health benefits, and other vulnerable members of society.
  • Republicans also want to claw back unused COVID relief funds, which the CBO estimates at $30 billion.
  • Lowering the deficit by raising taxes on billionaires and corporations, as unveiled in Biden's budget proposal, don't appear to be part of the negotiations.

On the policy side, the debate is centered on energy and work requirements.

  • The GOP wants to attach new work requirements to three social welfare programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid for adults without children.
  • Biden has basically ruled out any changes to Medicaid (which would save $109 billion over 10 years, according to the CBO score) but appears open to tinkering with SNAP ($10 billion) and TANF ($11 billion).
  • But progressive are bristling at these proposals and Biden officials point out that they don't actually save that much money.

On energy, Republicans have long viewed the debt negotiations as a way to jam the White House on passing some sort of legislation to speed up permitting on energy projects.

  • Last year, Biden convinced his own party to support a version of permitting reform to win the support of Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) for his climate and energy bill.
  • But Republicans wanted to go further, killed the Biden-Manchin plan and gambled on their chances in the new Congress.
  • In theory, there's a compromise on permitting that brings along the green energy types (who want more transmission lines) and the oil and gas industry (who want their projects approved faster).
  • In practice, the politics get sticky.

What we're watching: In a sign of progress, some of McCarthy's initial proposals — like repealing Biden's signature energy legislation — aren't being seriously considered.

  • Other elements of McCarthy's opening bid, like rescinding $120 billion in IRS funding, haven't been flatly rejected.
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