With a Debt Ceiling Battle Looming, It Looks Like Kevin McCarthy Is on His Own

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

The sky seems to be perpetually falling if you ask Democrats, journalists, and even some Republicans, and the current fiscal fight in the House seems to be no exception.


Joe Biden and the Democrats are adamant that a clean debt ceiling increase has to happen or else the consequences will be dire. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate, is only telling reporters “We will not default.” But in the House, Republicans are poised to force a lengthy battle over the debt ceiling and potential cuts to the federal budget.

That puts House Speaker Kevin McCarthy somewhere he may not be comfortable being: In the driver’s seat of a prolonged ideological battle.

And he’s having to go it alone, it seems, as the Senator GOP appears more than willing to let the House take up this fight on its own. That puts the conservatives who drew major concessions from McCarthy in the driver’s seat, putting a lot of options for cuts on the table, but also potentially exposing which House Republicans are not so willing to go along with cuts – and which of those McCarthy still has sway over.

POLITICO has a piece this morning highlighting McCarthy’s struggle.

With the government funded until the end of September, many Republicans believe it’s McCarthy’s turn to make the tough calls during the new era of split government. Take Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who’s about as amenable to lifting the debt ceiling as any Republican you’ll find in the Capitol.

At the moment, she said, her “preference would be for the president to sit down with Speaker McCarthy, listen to one another and work out an agreement.” She said she did not know whether a so-called clean debt ceiling increase could even pass the Senate.

McCarthy’s challenge isn’t just to pass a bill lifting the debt ceiling, it’s to assuage his conservatives who are eager for draconian fiscal cuts in return — while eventually reaching an agreement with some House Democratic support to show momentum in the Senate. Those competing agendas could be difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile by the time the Treasury Department is finished using what are known as extraordinary measures to maximize the country’s remaining borrowing authority.


This fight – which looks like it could go on for weeks, or even months – is McCarthy’s first test as Speaker and a major one at that. The fiscal health of the United States is at risk, and no matter which choice he makes, he’ll be attacked for it.

Democrats are pushing for a clean debt ceiling increase, and conservatives want cuts that POLITICO refers to as “draconian” (which, incidentally, proves they don’t actually understand what that word means). More moderate Republicans are open to a more balanced approach, with some cuts but also a debt ceiling increase.

So, what’s on the table for cuts? According to the Washington Post, quite a bit.

So far, the party has focused its attention on slimming down federal health care, education, science and labor programs, perhaps by billions of dollars. But some Republicans also have pitched a deeper examination of entitlements, which account for much of the government’s annual spending — and reflect some of the greatest looming fiscal challenges facing the United States.

In recent days, a group of GOP lawmakers has called for the creation of special panels that might recommend changes to Social Security and Medicare, which face genuine solvency issues that could result in benefit cuts within the next decade. Others in the party have resurfaced more detailed plans to cut costs, including by raising the Social Security retirement age to 70, targeting younger Americans who have yet to obtain federal benefits.


But it’s pretty clear that Democrats will be outright opposed to any entitlement reform, and even some Republicans will be hesitant. Conservatives may have forced McCarthy to give it to their demands, but they are still vastly outnumbered in the House, much less the full Congress. It will be up to McCarthy to take those conservative demands and then negotiate with the Democrats – and even President Biden himself – in a way that makes as many people begrudgingly amenable to any changes that may come.

Because it’s not just the fiscal health of the nation at risk. How McCarthy chooses to go about this could also affect his Speakership going forward.


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