The House’s passage of a debt limit deal Wednesday night marks the end of a pivotal chapter for the new House GOP majority, putting Congress on a path to avoid a default and securing a huge victory for Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — even as it’s infuriated conservatives in his own conference.
The vote followed months of jockeying between McCarthy and President Biden over the appropriateness of negotiating future spending as part of the effort to extend the government’s borrowing authority — a fight McCarthy won handily, by forcing Biden reluctantly to the table.
But the final agreement also excluded most of the spending cuts and other favored provisions in the partisan debt ceiling package Republicans passed last month, highlighting the political realities — and potential pitfalls — of shepherding big ideas through a divided Washington.
With a final vote of 314-117, the bill overwhelmingly passed, and McCarthy garnered a “yes” vote from about two-thirds of the Republican conference. But overall, more Democrats voted for the bill than GOP lawmakers.
Here are five takeaways on what passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act means for the politics of the House.
McCarthy proved he can cut big bipartisan deals
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. (Tierney L. Cross)
The Speaker has defied expectations since struggling to win the gavel in January, rallying Republicans behind a host of bills advancing the party’s priorities on a wide variety of issues, including immigration, energy policy and education.
But virtually all of those proposals were partisan messaging bills, with no hope of consideration by Democrats who control the Senate or White House. In that important respect, the debt ceiling package marked McCarthy’s first major negotiation with leaders across the aisle — and the first real, must-pass bill that’s moved through the House under his guidance.
The fraught process has proven that McCarthy can not only move partisan bills through the House, but can also navigate bipartisan bills into law — all in a pressure-cooker environment when failure might have led to an economy-crushing default.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), one of the GOP negotiators for the debt bill, said the White House had “for damn sure” underestimated McCarthy.
“Kevin McCarthy has always been underestimated,” McHenry said.
“The White House miscalculated on this one. They misjudged the Speaker,” added Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.). “He is hands-down the best strategist I’ve ever worked with.”
Relations within the House GOP conference have soured
Lead negotiators for the House Republicans in the debt ceiling talks Reps. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) and Garret Graves (R-La.) head to Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) office on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. (Greg Nash)
For House GOP leaders, the debt ceiling win came at the cost of strained internal relations.
Graves, who also negotiated with the White House on the deal, expressed frustration with members of the House Freedom Caucus criticizing the package — particularly Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas).
“Some trust was lost, I’m not gonna lie,” Graves said. “There really was, and I’m really offended.”
Graves said that the GOP criticisms “play into the hands of the White House.”
“We have some relationship repair that needs to happen,” Graves said, adding that he has talked candidly to Roy about how he feels. “We’re going to need to sit down and talk and probably over several bottles of something initially.”
Roy responded to Graves’s loss of trust on Twitter.
“Garret and I will sit down and talk about it. He’s a good man and he (and Patrick [McHenry]) worked hard on this. But this is the country we’re talking about – and the bill is exactly what it is,” Roy said.
Frustrated conservatives also went after party leaders for ignoring their concerns, characterizing the Republicans’ all-hands briefings on the package as cosmetic exercises with no real purpose.
Asked if GOP leaders were listening to member concerns, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) didn’t pause: “No, they weren’t responsive to any concerns,” she said. “They never are.”
Higher chance of attempt to oust McCarthy as Speaker
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) speaks to reporters after a press conference held by the House Freedom Caucus regarding the Biden-McCarthy debt limit deal on Tuesday, May 30, 2023. (Tierney L. Cross)
Conservative outrage about the bill not having deep enough cuts has increased the chances of McCarthy facing a GOP mutiny. Any single member can make a motion to vacate the chair — which would force a vote on removing McCarthy as Speaker.
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) became the first member to officially call for such a motion over the debt bill Tuesday, saying: “I think it’s got to be done.” He did not explicitly commit to making the motion, saying he would first consult with colleagues.
“There’s 222 members of the Republican conference. Nobody in the Republican conference could have done a worse job,” Bishop said of McCarthy’s negotiation with the White House.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) echoed those gripes, saying Wednesday that McCarthy “should be concerned” about a motion to vacate.
McCarthy, for his part, has brushed aside the threat, saying he is not worried about losing his Speakership. And other confrontational conservative Republicans are putting down the idea.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, said the motion to vacate is a “terrible idea.” And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said she did not take those threats seriously. Both Jordan and Greene have become McCarthy allies.
Jeffries, Dem leaders keep a tight ship
Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) addresses reporters during a press conference on Tuesday, May 23, 2023 to introduce a social security bill. (Greg Nash)
McCarthy was not the only untested congressional leader heading into the debt ceiling fight.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the newly tapped Democratic leader, was also under heavy pressure to deliver for the party in his first major battle with a tight deadline and the economy in the balance.
That gave Jeffries and his leadership team the delicate task of protecting Biden, an unpopular president who’s running for reelection, from charges that he gave away too much, while also giving rank-and-file members of his caucus free rein to air their protests with the deal — and even vote against it when it hit the floor. There was no whip operation on final passage.
“Members will make the decision that is best for them,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday morning.
Jeffries also orchestrated several deft maneuvers throughout the debate.
In January, Democratic leaders very quietly launched the process, known as a discharge petition, to force a vote on a clean debt ceiling bill as an emergency hatch if the talks went sideways. Behind Jeffries and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), the Democratic whip, party leaders then secured unanimous support for that petition, which heightened the pressure on Republicans to cut a deal with Biden.
And Wednesday, when McCarthy failed to secure the necessary Republican votes to pass the rule governing the bill, Jeffries mobilized Democrats to buck tradition and fill the void to ensure the measure could pass — but only after it was clear that Democrats would be needed to rescue the vote.
Even McCarthy was impressed with that strategy.
“I probably would have done the same [thing],” McCarthy said. “Good play.”
Government funding battles on the horizon
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) at the Capitol on Thursday, May 18, 2023. (Tierney L. Cross)
The debt limit bill erases the threat of government default until 2025 and sets top-line spending caps, but Congress still has work to do to actually fund the government before Oct. 1 or face a shutdown — a threat that’s been heightened by the consternation of conservative deficit hawks dismayed by McCarthy’s performance in the debt ceiling fight.
One part of the bill aims to incentivize Congress to pass 12 regular appropriations bills by instituting a penalty for failure: an automatic 1 percent cut to discretionary programs, across the board.
“Appropriations is where the fight is,” Greene said.
Spending will not be the only fight. Conservatives are also eying the coming 2024 budget debate as their leverage point to install favored policy priorities.
Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) said that the only way Republicans can combat “weaponized government” is through the appropriations process. Greene is fighting hard for a balanced budget amendment and legislation to block any new hires at the IRS. Other Republicans have eyed defunding parts of the FBI that they find objectionable.
“We have a chance to control spending more transparently and precisely using powerful Congressional tools such as the upcoming appropriations bills,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said in a tweet Tuesday.