Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is seizing the moment in debt ceiling negotiations, staying out front in public messaging as he pushes the White House to change its debt limit posture while also keeping the right flank in his conference satisfied — for now.
Negotiators have yet to reach a deal, political dynamics could easily change depending on its final form and a bumpy weekend in the talks pose another challenge for him. But McCarthy’s public relations strategy on the debt limit has seen results so far.
McCarthy united his far-flung conference to pass a bill that paired a debt limit increase with spending cuts and other GOP priorities. Shortly after, President Biden backed away from his no-negotiations stance and invited McCarthy and other congressional leaders to meet — though the White House has continued to frame the talks as a negotiation on the budget separate from the debt limit.
And after McCarthy expressed pessimism about how those talks were going, the structure of discussions was narrowed to be between just his deputies and the White House, cutting out congressional Democrats and Senate Republicans.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who some previously thought might have to step in to negotiate a compromise, has thrown his full support behind the Speaker to negotiate a deal.
The Speaker is holding frequent press conferences, gaggles, and TV interviews to advocate for spending cuts and policy reforms as a condition of raising the debt limit, a contrast to the press-shy President Biden. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said he was “pretty impressed with his [Wednesday] press conference” that featured Republicans from both chambers.
A source familiar with McCarthy’s strategy said that his decision to be in front of the media shows his confidence in his policy asks and that the public will back him up in those.
McCarthy embraces an underdog, “House GOP vs. the world” message.
“Here’s a Republican conference that none of you gave credibility to or thought we could achieve anything,” McCarthy said Tuesday.
With the talks amping up this week, the White House has appeared to back away from its longtime stance that it wants a “clean increase” without any other conditions, though it has still framed the negotiations in terms of the budget rather than the debt limit.
“He has the bully pulpit of the Speakership,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said of McCarthy’s messaging in contrast to the Democrats. “We always struggle to get our message amplified.”
Public opinion surveys have shown that Democratic attacks on Republicans for holding the economy “hostage” are struggling to sway the electorate in their favor.
A May 17-18 Harvard/Harris poll found that 57 percent of voters think Democrats should cave their position to prevent a default, up from 55 percent in April, while 43 percent said Republicans should cave.
Meanwhile, Economist/YouGov polls have found that McCarthy’s net job approval rating has dramatically improved in the months since January, when a 15-ballot saga ended with him being elected Speaker.
A May 13-16 survey found that 42 percent of adults approved of the way McCarthy was handling his job as Speaker, while 34 percent disapproved while 24 percent were not sure. In a January 21-24 survey, just 32 percent approved, while 37 percent disapproved and 32 percent were not sure.
And some Democratic messaging on the negotiations has conflicted.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Monday that the GOP’s request for beefed-up work requirements for public assistance programs was a “nonstarter.” But later in the week, Biden signaled willingness to compromise on work requirements, though rejected any kind of significant change.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said that she was being “watchful” of the White House in the negotiations now that congressional Democrats have been cut out of the room.
“The President’s done such a phenomenal job of leading the country over the last two years and keeping Democrats united behind core Democratic values, and I would urge them to continue to do so,” Jayapal said.
Some progressive Democrats have continued to hold out hope for a “clean” debt limit increase.
“I want to believe that the White House is holding firm to its commitments and our values,” Huffman said.
Several Democrats suggest Biden could test a 14th Amendment strategy to raise the debt limit unilaterally without the help of Congress. While Biden said over the weekend that he thinks he has the authority to do so, he warned there may not be enough time to invoke that authority, have it litigated, and still avoid a default.
House Democrats have also filed a escape-hatch discharge petition plan to force a vote on a clean debt ceiling increase — though that would need support from at least five Republicans, who have shown no willingness to help.
McCarthy is not out of the woods yet, though.
It remains unclear whether he will be able to secure a compromise that appeases the right flank of his conference — some of whom expect nothing less than the sweeping policy reforms and cuts that they passed in their April debt limit bill. And others are trying to throw more policy proposals, such as beefed-up border security measures, into the mix.
Political observers note that it takes just one GOP member to call a motion to vacate the chair and force a vote on ousting the Speaker.
Hardline conservatives, however, insist such an upheaval is not being considered right now, signaling that McCarthy still has their support as negotiations continue.
“I haven’t heard anybody talking about motion to vacate except for reporters who asked me about that,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), one of the 20 hardline conservatives who withheld support from McCarthy during the Speaker’s election.
However, the conservative House Freedom Caucus on Thursday threw another wrinkle in the mix when it called for “no further discussion” on the debt ceiling, pressuring the Senate to pass the House GOP bill. That position became cloudy, though, when the group’s chairman, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), later said the position did not mean McCarthy and the White House should not talk at all.
And Friday, McCarthy hit pause on debt limit talks for much of the day as his top negotiator, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), said the White House was being “unreasonable.” The talks resumed that evening but made little progress before McCarthy is set to meet with Biden on Monday.
That threw another wild card into the mix: Former President Trump.
“REPUBLICANS SHOULD NOT MAKE A DEAL ON THE DEBT CEILING UNLESS THEY GET EVERYTHING THEY WANT (Including the “kitchen sink”),” Trump wrote on Truth Social on Friday.
McCarthy had been careful to not contradict Trump earlier in the week when asked to respond to the former president downplaying the potential economic consequences of a default.
“I think President Trump is a great negotiator. And I think that President Trump when does that, he’s trying to help the negotiation,” McCarthy said.