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Refute the exaggeration: Unassuming legislators played a crucial role in averting a debt ceiling crisis

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters about debt ceiling negotiations at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In an era dominated by political cynicism, it is often overlooked how the contributions of lesser-known lawmakers played a significant role in preventing a debt ceiling crisis.

Just don’t call them “moderates.”

“Moderates?” tweeted Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., one of the lead negotiators of the debt-ceiling deal that passed the House overwhelmingly Wednesday night. He prefers the descriptor: “pragmatic conservatives who actually care about getting to work.”

In the midst of widespread political skepticism, the significant contributions of lesser-known lawmakers often go unnoticed. One such example is Johnson, who bears more resemblance to Bill Gates than Matt Gaetz and represents approximately 75 GOP members as the chairman of the “Republican Main Street Caucus.”

Referred to by Republicans in this Congress as the mafioso-themed “Five Families,” the Main Street Caucus, along with several other centrist coalitions like the “New Democrat Coalition” on the opposing side, played a crucial role in garnering support for the debt-ceiling deal.

The approval of the Biden-McCarthy debt ceiling bill by the House, with a looming default deadline, witnessed valid concerns from both ends of the political spectrum. On the left, worries centered around potential work requirements that could adversely affect those in poverty and apprehensions regarding the environmental consequences of expedited energy permits. On the right, there persisted concerns about what they perceive as uncontrollable spending and a mounting national debt surpassing $30 trillion.

Nevertheless, when the final vote took place, two-thirds of House Republicans and over three-quarters of Democrats rallied behind the bill, resulting in a resounding 314-117 tally. While the Senate still needs to pass the measure, it is expected that those who veered away from the extreme factions within their respective parties, often occupied by vocal and attention-seeking members, are the ones responsible for averting a potentially disastrous and unprecedented U.S. debt default.

Call them perhaps the Silent Middle Majority.

The negotiators take action.

President Biden walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday ahead of the House vote on a bill that raises the debt ceiling and caps spending for two years.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden assumed office with the slimmest of congressional majorities and faced criticism from progressive factions. Over the past two years, conservative voices on the right have amplified their negative sentiments towards him, inaccurately portraying him as a feeble puppet of the progressive left.

On the other hand, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy lacks a strong grip on his party members. With a razor-thin majority of just four seats, he narrowly secured the speakership after a historic 15 rounds of voting. In his pursuit of the position he has coveted for more than a decade, McCarthy had to make concessions, inadvertently empowering the most extreme and combative elements within his party.

The reality is that political partisanship today is as severe, if not worse, than at almost any other time in recent history. This assertion is supported by data, highlighting the increasing ideological alignment within the parties, particularly among Republicans, on issues ranging from gun control and abortion rights to gender identity. The number of competitive swing districts has significantly diminished over the years, leaving lawmakers with little incentive to seek compromise.

Given this context, the outlook appeared grim for the present moment. Mistrust towards U.S. institutions permeates the political landscape, and the consequences of this toxic sentiment are tangible.

However, it is crucial to recognize that the narrative of extreme partisanship can sometimes overshadow the reality. Despite his more moderate profile, Biden secured the presidential nomination, demonstrating his ability to resonate with a broad base of support. While McCarthy’s legislative prowess as speaker remains largely untested thus far, Biden has repeatedly shown his aptitude for working with individuals across the political spectrum.

In 2011, President Biden demonstrated his ability to collaborate across party lines when he worked with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell on the debt ceiling issue. Despite facing increased Republican resistance, Biden has successfully achieved bipartisan victories on several legislative fronts since assuming office. These include:

  1. The passage of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
  2. The implementation of the CHIPS Act, which aims to bolster domestic semiconductor production in the United States.
  3. Enacting a bill that extends healthcare and benefits to millions of veterans who were affected by exposure to toxins such as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  4. The approval of a $1.7 trillion federal government funding bill, which received 68 votes in the Senate and featured a revised Electoral Count Act.

Through these accomplishments, President Biden has demonstrated his ability to bridge divides and secure bipartisan support, even in the face of significant GOP resistance.

This week’s debt-ceiling agreement further enhances President Biden’s reputation as a skilled negotiator, defying the odds once again.

The bill carries significant political implications for both Biden and McCarthy. One crucial aspect is that it extends the debt ceiling until 2025, effectively removing it as a contentious issue until after the next presidential election.

This development brings relief for Biden, considering the already uncertain economy, persistent inflation, and rising interest rates. He has other vulnerabilities to address, and engaging in another debt-ceiling battle in the midst of a presidential campaign would have been the last thing he or his staff needed.

For McCarthy, the postponed confrontation means he may not have to subject his members to another challenging vote for another year and a half. This is particularly important as he may have faced criticism from the far right to secure the passage of this deal.

McCarthy continues to face lurking dangers.

McCarthy’s position as speaker remains vulnerable due to the influence of the GOP right, a faction that has historically troubled past Republican speakers. In order to secure his speakership, McCarthy had to make significant concessions to another influential group known as the Freedom Caucus, one of the “Five Families” within the Republican Party.

One of these concessions involved granting the Freedom Caucus the power to approve certain members of the Rules Committee, which holds authority over the voting process for bills. This decision allows the Freedom Caucus to exert influence over the legislative agenda.

However, the most critical concession McCarthy made was lowering the threshold required to bring a vote to the floor for the removal of the speaker. Now, a single member can initiate such a vote, thereby increasing the vulnerability of McCarthy’s leadership position.

These concessions reflect McCarthy’s efforts to appease and accommodate the most conservative wing of his party, even though he has not traditionally enjoyed widespread support from this faction. The implications of these concessions could pose ongoing challenges for McCarthy’s tenure as speaker.

Republican Reps. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina (left) and Garret Graves of Louisiana, pictured at the Capitol on Wednesday, were lead negotiators on behalf of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Despite the looming challenges, McCarthy chose not to align himself with the hard-right faction of his party for his initial major deal with Democrats. Instead, he sought support from representatives such as Johnson and Garret Graves, both Republicans.

Garret Graves, in particular, is widely recognized as someone who gets things done within the Republican ranks. Prior to serving as a congressman, he held the position of chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana. In that role, he played a crucial part in advocating for funding and resources following the BP oil spill, showcasing his effectiveness and commitment to achieving tangible results.

By turning to individuals like Graves, McCarthy demonstrates a strategic approach aimed at collaborating with pragmatic members within his party to navigate political challenges and advance their shared goals.

Graves holds a significant position in congressional leadership as the chair of the Elected Leadership Committee, which regularly convenes with representatives from the Five Families. Consequently, he possesses a comprehensive understanding of the key individuals involved in the political landscape.

However, the familiarity with these dynamics did not deter certain right-wing members from attempting to thwart the bill, citing its lack of alignment with conservative principles.

Their efforts came remarkably close to achieving their goal.

According to a recent poll, a slim majority of respondents support raising the debt ceiling without the inclusion of spending cuts. This sentiment challenges the perspective of those seeking to impede the bill’s progress.

Chip Roy, a member of the Freedom Caucus from Texas, demonstrated a willingness to venture to the edge of default or even beyond in order to pressure McCarthy and advocate for additional cuts.

These developments highlight the internal struggle within the Republican Party, with contrasting viewpoints and priorities concerning fiscal policy and adherence to conservative ideals.

“A reminder that during Speaker negotiations to build the coalition, that it was explicit both that nothing would pass Rules Committee without AT LEAST 7 GOP votes,” he tweeted, “AND that the Committee would not allow reporting out rules without unanimous Republican votes.”

However, despite the efforts of Chip Roy, much like Kendall Roy in the TV show Succession who fell short by a single vote, he couldn’t convince conservative Representative Thomas Massie from Kentucky to support his attempts to block the bill’s advancement in the committee.

When asked on PBS NewsHour Tuesday night, Freedom Caucus Chairman Representative Scott Perry from Pennsylvania declined to disclose whether he would initiate a vote to oust McCarthy if his endeavor to obstruct the debt-ceiling vote proved unsuccessful.

“We’ll address that discussion once this is concluded,” Perry stated.

Now that the process has concluded, the pragmatists emerged victorious, at least for one night.

However, McCarthy shouldn’t get too comfortable. It’s essential to remember that, in the end, Michael Corleone eliminated Stracci, Cuneo, Tattaglia, and Barzini to seize control—a reminder that power dynamics can shift unexpectedly.

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