Will McCarthy Survive The Debt Ceiling Crisis?

[ Posted Thursday, May 4th, 2023 – 15:42 UTC ]

The two sides have dug in to their respective positions on the debt ceiling crisis, and nobody at this point can predict what the eventual outcome is going to be. America is watching Washington politicians essentially play Russian roulette with our country's -- and by extension, the whole world's -- economy. While most sane people would prefer that the politicians don't kill the economy to score ideological points, that is a very real possibility at the moment. Both President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy are walking a tightrope, as the crowd breathlessly watches the high-wire act play out. But what I find myself wondering is whether McCarthy will survive the experience without plunging back to Earth -- or, more accurately, back to the back benches in the House Republican caucus.

Will Kevin McCarthy still be speaker at the end of this process? That's not a bet I would take, at the moment. It seems there are multiple ways he could lose so much confidence within his own caucus that they essentially force him out of the position of leading them. This was one of the demands some of the extremists in his caucus forced McCarthy to agree to before he even became speaker -- ensuring that the option to depose a speaker remains open to any one House member at any time.

McCarthy's chances of survival are tied to whatever happens in the showdown, of course, but his chances don't line up directly with whether the problem is solved successfully or the nation defaults on its debt for the first time in history. In fact, McCarthy agreeing to raise the debt ceiling -- even with major concessions by Biden -- might directly cause him to lose his leadership position.

There are a number of ways this all could play out. The first is that the plan McCarthy barely passed in the House is wholly adopted by Biden and the Senate. The chances of this happening are infinitesimal, but hey, anything's possible, right? This scenario would give McCarthy the strongest position afterwards. He would be the brave fiscal hawk who forced the Democrats to bend to the Republicans' will. Total victory in the negotiations would enormously strengthen McCarthy's standing among his own caucus. But, as noted, there is almost zero chance of this actually happening.

The second (and hopefully "most likely") scenario is that McCarthy and Biden, along with the Senate leaders, strike some sort of compromise deal. Biden and the Democrats would have to agree to some sort of budget restrictions, but not everything in the McCarthy plan would survive the negotiations. The most extreme items will be dropped. Such is the nature of compromise.

This is a rather large category, because it encompasses all the possible compromises which could be agreed to -- which is a very large range. There will have to be some face-saving measures for both sides, so both Biden and McCarthy can go to their respective parties and claim victory (or at least partial victory). Again, such is the nature of compromise. McCarthy's standing, after reaching such a compromise, might hinge on how the compromise is seen politically. The political media is going to cast it all as: "Who blinked?" -- in other words, declaring the "winners" and "losers" in the negotiations. This public opinion spin is going to be crucial in how all the other Republicans react to any deal McCarthy strikes. Especially whatever spin comes out of the rightwing sector of the political media. If Fox "News" (and all the rest of them) declare the compromise unacceptable and cowardly, it's going to make it a lot harder for McCarthy to survive.

Say some compromise is reached. Say Mitch McConnell supports it, and the Senate quickly passes it as a bill. What will happen in the House? When McCarthy brings the bill to the floor, he is going to enrage the extremists in his own party, for whom "compromise" is the dirtiest word in the English language. They are going to be livid. Such a compromise will almost certainly have to be passed with a bipartisan vote, as Democrats and reasonable Republicans pass it through the House while the extremists (probably some on both sides) vote against it.

This is quite likely the point where McCarthy's leadership will be challenged. The big question for the rest of America is whether this happens before or after the House passes a compromise plan. If the radical Republicans make a parliamentary move to oust McCarthy before such a vote, then we'd all be in limbo while the schismatic battle for control happened. If the bill has already passed, then at least the threat of the economy crumbling won't be in play any more. The consequences of McCarthy losing his speaker job will be a lot less dire, at least.

There are easily enough extremists to challenge McCarthy's leadership. That much was obvious in the multiple rounds of voting it took for him to even become speaker. If the hotheads refuse to support McCarthy, then the House may well go into complete gridlock and remain speakerless until someone can round up a majority of votes (as we've already seen, all other House business grinds to a halt while the speakership race is decided). But whomever the extremists back is not likely to gain support from the rest of the Republican caucus, which could lead to prolonged bickering. There's even a chance -- a slim possibility, to be sure -- that Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries could convince a handful of Republicans to cross the aisle and hand the Democrats control of the chamber. That's a longshot, but all of this is going to be uncharted territory, so again: who knows?

There are two other ways events could unfold as well. We could actually default on the debt. This might leave McCarthy with very strong support from his own extremists (for not backing down) but it may horrify more-reasonable Republicans. This may even be enough for them to be the ones to oust McCarthy. This too is a longshot, and could also lead to Speaker Jeffries, but we're just exploring all the possibilities here.

Or we could reach some sort of last-minute deal where everyone agrees to just punt the football down the road a bit. The debt ceiling could be extended for a period of time -- perhaps a short period (one month, say) or perhaps a bit longer (the most obvious answer would be to move the debt ceiling crisis to the time later this year when the budget will have to be hashed out -- after all, if the Republicans want to tie the two together, then perhaps they should both have the same deadline). McCarthy would be in a delicate position if this happens, since he has been swearing up and down that he'll never pass a "clean" debt limit hike. By agreeing to do so, even short-term, he'll be seen as breaking this pledge. But he could spin it as a partial victory by assuring his caucus that he's got Biden on the ropes and he just needs a little more time to land the knockout blow.

There are a lot of ways things could play out. Throughout it all, though, it is going to be very tough for Kevin McCarthy to maintain support from his entire caucus. He just barely got his plan passed -- one more vote against it and it would have failed. There is a certain faction of the House Republicans who will see any compromise as a complete betrayal by McCarthy. If they wind up angry enough, they could take McCarthy down.

The only thing that might stop them is the fact that there is no obvious successor to McCarthy if he is deposed by his own caucus. All the Republicans who are on McCarthy's leadership team (who might normally be expected to garner enough support to become speaker) could be just as tainted by the compromise as McCarthy, to the extremists. And nominating one of their own firebrand members isn't going to succeed, since they won't get anywhere near the votes they need from the other Republicans to become the next speaker.

Maybe McCarthy will survive this self-imposed crisis. Maybe he will find some magic way to thread the needle between appearing to stand strong and working out a viable compromise. Maybe the lack of any obvious challenger will make the extremists think twice about deposing him. Or maybe the rightwing media actually throws its support into whatever compromise McCarthy agrees to (this would help him enormously). With everything up in the air (as things currently stand), it is impossible to make any sort of predictions of the probability of any of this happening. Things will become clearer the closer we get to some sort of solution or outcome to the crisis. But it certainly does seem well within the realm of the possible that the eventual outcome will be McCarthy's last act as speaker.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


One Comment on “Will McCarthy Survive The Debt Ceiling Crisis?”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I'd like to see both him and the rest of the Republican cult of economic failure go down for the count on this one. Mostly because I don't much want to think about the alternative scenario.

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