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Onward and Upward for Debt Ceiling Deal

Yesterday was a pretty big test for the debt-ceiling deal worked out by Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). And it passed, as the House Rules Committee approved the bill by a vote of 7-6.

The six "nay" votes included the four Democrats on the Rules Committee (Jim McGovern, D-MA; Mary Gay Scanlon, D-PA; Joe Neguse, D-CO and Teresa Leger Fernández, D-NM), who said they would not be bailing the Republicans out if the Republicans could not get their own house (and their own House) in order. The other two nays came from hardliners Chip Roy (R-TX) and Ralph Norman (R-SC). That means that the third hardliner selected for the committee, Thomas Massie (R-KY), voted "yea," as did the other six Republicans. So, McCarthy can bring the bill to the floor, which he is expected to do today.

Will it pass, once the House has had time to debate? Probably so. McCarthy and his leadership team are whipping votes hard, and so too are various key Democratic functionaries, including the President, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the leaders of the Blue Dog Coalition and the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus. Everyone is keeping their whip counts close to the vest, but it looks like there will be about 120 "yeas" on each side of the aisle. That means 240 in total, which is well more than the 218 needed for passage. Presumably, we'll find out for sure later today.

Meanwhile, the Freedom Caucusers are hopping mad, first that they're likely going to end up with a bill that achieves very few of their priorities, and second that they apparently don't have the power to veto legislation based on the vote of a single person (viz., Roy and/or Norman). Who knows exactly what was said behind closed doors, but there are clearly some members of the Caucus who thought they'd been given more power than was actually the case.

So, will the Freedom Caucus try to dump McCarthy? Certainly, some of them are threatening to do so. Specifically, Roy has threatened to make a motion to vacate the chair, so has Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC), and so has Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL). The thing is that while all of them are shaking their fists in the Speaker's direction, none of them is particularly willing to commit to actually going after him. Consider the statement from Gaetz, who appeared on Newsmax to share his views:

If a majority of Republicans are against a piece of legislation and you use Democrats to pass it, that would immediately be a black letter violation of the deal we had with McCarthy to allow his ascent to the Speakership, and it would likely trigger an immediate motion to vacate. I think Speaker McCarthy knows that. That's why he's working hard to make sure that he gets, you know, 120, 150, 160 votes. And that's why those of us who are not supportive of the bill are trying to point out that many of the changes are cosmetic in nature.

There are a lot of weasel words and conditions in there. It's also the case that if McCarthy doesn't get 120 votes, the bill probably doesn't pass. So, the cutoff that Gaetz posits as a drop-dead for McCarthy is basically meaningless.

And that brings us back to a point we made yesterday, namely that the weakness of the Freedom Caucus is on display here. If they yield on this debt-ceiling deal, then they're all hat and no cattle. If they actually pull the trigger, and fire their silver bullet at the Speaker, they might not be able to get rid of McCarthy. Again, it is entirely possible that as part of these negotiations, Joe Biden has arranged a 50-member Democratic firewall that will keep McCarthy's job safe. And even if McCarthy is axed, there is zero chance any replacement speaker would be willing to make the same bargain with the Freedom Caucus. It is far easier to give 40 moderate Democrats what they want rather than kowtow to the Freedom Caucusers.

One other point along these lines, as long as we are at it. The last time this happened, back during the Obama presidency, the then-President agreed to spending caps in order to avoid a default. What he guessed, correctly as it turns out, is that "let's cut spending" sounds great... until it's time to actually talk about spending money. What happened back then is that the spending caps that had been negotiated were substantially ignored during the next budget process, because even Republicans like bringing home the bacon. Biden was on the front lines for that one, and he's presumably expecting the same to happen when the 2023-24 budget is negotiated in a few months. If so, then the relatively meager "wins" for the Freedom Caucus will become even more meager.

Assuming that the bill gets past the House today (or maybe tomorrow), it will head to the Senate, where there is still room for plenty of posturing. It is not plausible, all parties agree, for the Senate to alter the bill and send it back to the House. At least, not before June 5 arrives. However, various "look at me" members of the Senate (think Ted Cruz, R-TX; Mike Lee, R-UT; Rand Paul, R-KY) have the ability to drag things out substantially in order to get some attention for... standing on their principles, or something. The upshot is that the parliamentary and cat-herding skills of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) may be put to an extreme test in the next several days. (Z)

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