Coulda Been Worse...

[ Posted Tuesday, May 30th, 2023 – 15:38 UTC ]

The news broke in Washington over the holiday weekend that we finally have a deal. President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed to a plan which will constrain the federal budget and raise the debt ceiling past the 2024 elections. Nobody's exactly thrilled with the parameters of the deal, with grumbles being heard from both from the MAGA right and the progressive left. At this point, though, the deal looks like it will likely garner enough support to pass the House, and the Senate likely won't kill it off at the last minute. That's where things currently stand at any rate.

Neither McCarthy nor Biden is having much success metaphorically spiking the political football, since the deal isn't an obvious big win for either side. Well, McCarthy is attempting to sell the deal to members of his own caucus as the most wonderful budget-cutting deal ever seen in Washington, but so far it's been kind of a hard sell (since it really isn't). Biden, on the other hand, is left to argue a negative -- that the deal he managed to get wasn't so much a win for his side as a loss for the other, and is therefore on balance a good thing. Biden is indeed right, but it's always a political hard sell to tell people: "It could have been so much worse!"

It's an accurate case to make, actually, since all you have to do is look at the deal versus the list of House Republican demands from the bill they passed on partisan lines to kickstart the negotiation process. That was a truly Draconian take on the federal budget, and included such things as repealing the Inflation Reduction Act (a signature piece of Biden's legislative agenda) as well as slashing federal spending on everything except Social Security, Medicare, and the military, by upwards of 20 percent. None of which made it into the final deal. In fact, very few of the initial Republican demands made it in, in any form whatsoever. Which is a clear victory for Biden and proves he's a better negotiator than many give him credit for.

The deal that did emerge is pretty close to a continuing resolution, in fact, which puts the federal budget on autopilot for the next few years. Many times when Congress doesn't get its act together and pass the dozen budget bills it is supposed to every year, at the last minute a continuing resolution (or "C.R.") is thrown together which essentially tells every federal department: "Keep spending exactly the same money as you have been spending." No funding hikes, but also no big funding cuts. It's a compromise, with perhaps some tinkering around the edges of federal spending included. That is pretty much what Biden and McCarthy just announced.

There are things in the deal that both sides hate. Already some on the MAGA right have announced they will not vote for the bill, as well as a handful on the progressive left. Those on the right are in a tantrum because McCarthy didn't get every single thing in the Republican demands bill, and those on the left are annoyed that Biden slightly expanded some work requirements for some federal programs and that he tossed in a pipeline approval in West Virginia (in a very transparent attempt to lock down Senator Joe Manchin's vote). But all around, there's nothing exactly earthshaking in the bill for either side to complain about. It's really just a glorified C.R., after all.

There are some hurdles to clear in the way forward, the first of which will be that the bill has to get out of the House Rules Committee today. This committee will also determine whether amendments will be allowed on the floor. The final House floor vote is scheduled for tomorrow evening, after which (assuming it passes) it will go over to the Senate. The Senate will have until Monday to pass the bill, if they are going to beat the deadline of June 5th (which Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has announced as the date the United States could default). There's no guarantee the bill will pass both houses, and also no guarantee that it won't be amended along the way, but at this point I'd bet both that it will pass and that it will pass unamended.

There are no solid whipcounts at this point, at least not in the political press. There are guesses, however. The consensus (at this point) is that bill will likely pass the House with anywhere from 110 to 150 Republicans supporting it as well as at least 100 Democrats. Those estimates could be wildly off, though. More GOP representatives might get on board but don't want to broadcast their decision ahead of time, and the Democratic number is a real stab in the dark since it could be either a lot higher or a lot lower. But no matter how the numbers add up, the chances of the bill passing the House seem a lot higher than it failing at the last minute. And my guess is that it'll pass with a very comfortable margin -- the vote won't hinge on a handful of people deciding at the last minute. Instead, there will be a big movement to support the bill from centrists on both sides of the aisle.

In the Senate there are more arcane rules to jam up the process of a bill passing, and one or two GOP senators already seem like they're willing to throw a few parliamentary monkey wrenches into the works. But they'll have from tomorrow evening until Monday to work through all of this, and if Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gets behind the effort (which seems entirely likely) then it'll probably get jammed through in the end.

There has been some Democratic angst that Joe Biden didn't do a great job of communications in the whole process -- that he should have been out in the media beating the drums for his interpretation of both the negotiations and the deal itself. But doing so would have made it a much heavier lift for McCarthy, since any bragging or tough talk from Biden would have enraged House GOP members -- and then they would have pressured McCarthy to dig in and get a better deal. Because Biden didn't needle the Republicans, it'll be a lot easier for more of them to vote for the final product. For the time being, the White House is making their core "It could have been a lot worse!" argument behind the scenes to congressional Democrats. Almost all of Biden's victories were in what got left out, so this is probably a smart move. The only big thing that Biden did force McCarthy to accept was to raise the debt ceiling beyond the 2024 calendar year. The initial Republican position was only to raise it for one year, which would have meant another big fiscal crisis mess, smack-dab in the middle of the presidential primary season. That is no longer going to happen, which is indeed a clear victory for Biden.

Democrats will likely move on from this bill after it passes. It's not going to be an enormous bone of contention for many of them, to put this another way. With Republicans controlling the House, there were bound to be negotiations and compromises over the budget process in any case, and McCarthy moving this battle up by using the leverage of the debt ceiling didn't really change that dynamic at all.

Over on the Republican side of the aisle, however, McCarthy may be in political jeopardy. Part of the deal he struck to become speaker was to allow any member to call for a "motion to vacate the chair" at any time. If one of them does (hopefully after the deal passes), then we'll see another House leadership fight play out. If McCarthy can't corral enough Republicans to keep him in control, then the House will revert back to holding votes for who will be speaker instead -- endlessly, if necessary. If a small contingent of Republicans force the "no confidence" vote and oust McCarthy, it's hard to see who they'd support as their new speaker (that the rest of the House Republicans would vote for). McCarthy may wind up paying the biggest political price over this deal, even with no clear plan of succession in place.

But this may not actually happen. So far, the grumbling from the MAGA right hasn't seemed to spread too widely within the rest of the Republican caucus. The question might be whether the hardliners just want to vent their anger on cable news shows or whether they are actually going to try to bring down McCarthy (with no agreed-upon successor in sight). If they have no real plan of action, the threat that a Democrat might win the speakership could be enough to halt such a move in its tracks -- but we'll all have to wait and see. It's virtually impossible to logically figure out what the MAGA wing is going to do, since they don't operate on logic but rather sheer emotion.

In any case, no matter what the political fallout in the House, it now seems more likely than not that the nation will avoid the financial catastrophe of defaulting. A plan is in place, it seems to be garnering enough support to pass, and Joe Biden is ready to sign it into law. The deal is a compromise and as such is not an enormous victory for either side. McCarthy is out there giving it the old hard sell on his side of the aisle, while Biden is content to point out to his Democrats: "It coulda been a lot worse...." With a divided Congress, this seems like about the best deal Biden could have managed.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “Coulda Been Worse...”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    It could always be worse....

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Yeah. "It's always darkest before it's completely black." :)

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    "Things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse."

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Did Chairman Mao say that, too? :)

  5. [5] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    Thanks for the summary of the deal.

    I was a little surprised you didn't mention the political gossip I've read elsewhere: that if McCarthy's Speakership is challenged by the hard-right GOP members in revenge for his failings on this deal, he may actually get some support from centrist Democrats who both want to reward him for his relative political sanity and to defang the threat that the Freedom Caucus somehow controls the House.

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    no, lily tomlin

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


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