May 28, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Party leaders sell divergent realities on debt ceiling deal

Kevin McCarthy

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy with two of his deputies, Reps. Garret Graves, left, and Patrick McHenry. Photo: Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images

The White House and House GOP are each performing careful balancing acts as they race to sell their debt ceiling deal to lawmakers as a decisive victory — without alienating the other side.

Why it matters: The bill will almost certainly require substantial support from members in both parties to pass and avert a potentially catastrophic default on U.S. debt by June 5.

  • The deal announced Saturday night marked a huge breakthrough after months of brinkmanship — but party leaders still have to sell the bill to skeptical members and the public.
  • "Everyone's trying to thread the needle to get to 218," said one House Democrat. "Either side bragging too much about their wins scares people and costs votes."

Driving the news: After telling his members on a Saturday night conference call that he made zero concessions to Democrats, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) doubled down in a "Fox News Sunday" interview.

  • "Right now, the Democrats are very upset," McCarthy said. House Democratic leader "Hakeem [Jeffries] told me, there's nothing in the bill for them. There’s not one thing in the bill for Democrats."
  • That was news to Jeffries, who said in a CBS News "Face the Nation" interview: "I have no idea what he's talking about, particularly because I have not been able to review the actual legislative text."

By the time he briefed the press at the Capitol later Sunday, McCarthy was singing a very different tune.

  • "It is not everything everybody wanted, but I think it is a very positive bill," he told reporters.
  • Asked whether he could get Democratic votes for a bill he cast as a total GOP victory, McCarthy said: "We raised the debt ceiling, we negotiated in good faith with the president. ... There's a lot in here for both sides."

Zoom in: The two parties might as well be in other worlds when it comes to characterizing details of the deal.

  • The GOP's one-pager on the bill, for example, says it caps 2024 non-defense spending at 2022 levels, but White House briefing materials say the deal keeps spending "roughly flat" with 2023 levels.
  • Even where there's agreement, the spin can be vertigo-inducing: The GOP boasts that the deal "restart[s] student loan repayments," but the White House contextualizes that it simply "codifies an end to the pause — which the administration had planned to end on September 1."

The other side: Democrats have taken a more behind-the-scenes approach than McCarthy. The White House called congressional allies individually and sent briefing materials on Saturday night but is waiting until 5pm ET on Sunday to hold a virtual briefing.

  • The approach seems to be working for some. Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who raised concerns about the bill at a closed-door meeting last week, told Axios that, after speaking with White House adviser Mitch Landrieu, there's nothing she sees as a "deal breaker."
  • Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) characterized the fact that the bill raises the debt ceiling into 2025 as a "huge win" for Biden, but conceded McCarthy has "worked the public relations of this, in my opinion, to great effect."
  • Both said they are waiting to see the final text before deciding how they will vote.

Yes, but: Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the former chair of the center-left New Democrat Coalition, both raised concerns about the deal on the Sunday shows.

  • Many Democrats “are looking for reassurance” from the White House briefing, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told Axios.
  • Members of the House Freedom Caucus also appeared to be livid, and several outside conservative groups came out swinging against the deal on Sunday.

What to watch: In addition to the briefing, Democrats will have an in-person caucus meeting next week and "multiple opportunities to review and discuss the legislation with the Biden administration," according to a letter Jeffries circulated Sunday.

  • McCarthy said he plans to brief Senate Republicans — some of whom have also voiced serious concerns about the deal — on a Sunday call.

The bottom line: "Both sides are obviously going to sell it as a win for them," said Moskowitz. "That's how this works."

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