Axios Sneak Peek
January 20, 2023
Welcome back to Sneak. Smart Brevity™ count: 989 words ... 3.5 minutes.
⚡ Situational awareness: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) will announce tomorrow morning whether he's running for re-election. Democrats are already facing a brutal Senate map in 2024.
1 big thing: A crisis years in the making
The roots of today's debt-limit standoff stretch back to 2011, when the Tea Party movement helped force then-President Obama to agree to future spending caps in exchange for lifting the ceiling.
- For Republicans, the achievement "validated one of the animating forces of the right over the past decade-plus — that the party’s failures are a result of weak, feckless leadership, and if they fight, they win," says GOP strategist Liam Donovan.
- For Democrats, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, the episode demonstrated why they should never negotiate with hostage-takers.
Driving the news: The Treasury Department has initiated what it calls "extraordinary measures" after the U.S. officially hit its $31.4 trillion debt limit today, giving the Biden administration and Congress six or so months to stave off a catastrophic default.
Why it matters: Every debt-ceiling standoff begins with both sides digging in their heels — and ends with one of them blinking. But the sour mood in Washington — and on Wall Street — suggests this time could be different.
- Jeff Siegel, a former Senate staffer who's now head of U.S. public and regulatory policy at BNP Paribas, told Semafor "there's probably never been a greater chance" the U.S. defaults than this year.
- The venerable political analyst Charlie Cook agrees, writing the certainty of avoiding calamity through compromise is "lower than we have ever seen before."
What's happening: The Trump era's political incentives — including online fundraising that relies on hyperbole and bluster — have encouraged House Republicans to adopt a politics of grievance and intransigence.
- Look no further than the way Freedom Caucus rebels dug in during the speaker election, forcing Rep. Kevin McCarthy to make historic concessions that empowered the conference's MAGA wing.
- Many of those same rebels are once again in the driver's seat: With McCarthy agreeing to reduce the threshold for a no-confidence vote to just one member, any misstep on the debt ceiling could be fatal to his speakership.
The intrigue: Today's populist, culture war-driven GOP is less beholden to the business establishment than it once was, weakening the stakeholders most vocal about the dangers of playing with the country's credit.
2. 💥 Part II: Averting disaster
Below are five possible scenarios for how one of the most consequential political fights of the Biden presidency could end:
- McCarthy gives in: As outlined above, McCarthy unilaterally disarming on the debt ceiling would likely end his career. Freedom Caucus rebels have been coy about using the single-member "motion to vacate" to oust McCarthy if he fails to extract spending cuts — but it's hard to see what they would use it for, if not this.
- Biden gives in: The White House's official line is that they will not negotiate on the debt ceiling. That position forced Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to blink during the last showdown in 2021, and Biden is determined to run the same playbook.
- Compromise: The "smart money" is on both sides saving face by establishing a commission to make nonbinding recommendations for spending cuts. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has at times stifled Democrats' agenda over his own debt concerns, has signaled he may reintroduce a bipartisan bill to create a "rescue committee" for every endangered government trust fund.
- Fed mints "the coin": Some progressives have called on Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to use her unilateral authority to issue a small platinum token, give it a face value of $1 trillion, and deposit it at the Federal Reserve — circumventing Congress and the borrowing limit. Yellen has dismissed the loophole as a "gimmick."
- The U.S. defaults: Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi predicted in 2021 that a default "would cost the U.S. economy up to 6 million jobs, wipe out as much as $15 trillion in household wealth, and send the unemployment rate surging to roughly 9 percent from around 5 percent," according to WaPo.
3. 💪 Moderate PAC prepares to flex
The Moderate PAC, an organization of centrist Democrats, plans to raise $20 million to defend a handful of Democratic lawmakers — as well as open-seat candidates — in 2024 primary fights with progressives, Axios' Hans Nichols and Alexi McCammond report.
Why it matters: The PAC is looking to scare off progressive groups like Justice Democrats from targeting moderates or tipping the scales for any seat in which an established Democrat might retire.
- With only four seats to reclaim the majority, the group wants to avoid what they see as unforced errors.
- That includes losing Oregon’s 5th Congressional District in 2022 after progressive Jamie McLeod-Skinner knocked out incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader — only to be defeated in the general election.
What they're saying: "We’ve seen the Republican Party cannibalize its moderate faction,” said Ty Strong, president of The Moderate PAC. "Replicating this on the Democratic side would be a big mistake."
4. 🥩 DeSantis' red meat
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is moving aggressively to implement new policies designed to fire up the Republican base, flexing the power of a term-limited governor eyeing a potential presidential primary:
- The Florida Department of Education won't allow a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies to be offered in high schools, claiming it violates Florida law and isn't "historically accurate."
- Yesterday, DeSantis called on lawmakers to permanently enforce penalties against businesses that require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
- He even teased a potential tax break for gas stoves, embracing the latest conservative culture war.
5. 🗣️ Biden: "I have no regrets"
Asked if he regrets not revealing the existence of classified documents at his home before the midterms, President Biden told reporters in California: "I have no regrets. I'm following what the lawyers have told me they want me to do. ... There's no there, there."
📬 Thanks for reading this week. This newsletter was edited by Zachary Basu and copy edited by Kathie Bozanich.