Loaded With Gimmicks, but Still Worth It

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy walks through the Capitol on May 30, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Republicans entered the debt-ceiling fight with grand ambitions. Last fall, they considered demanding reforms to Social Security and other entitlements as the price for raising the federal government’s debt limit in early 2023. When President Joe Biden predictably demagogued any changes to the Social Security and Medicare systems that overwhelmingly drive long-term deficits, Republicans downshifted to ambitious discretionary savings. Now, it appears that Republicans may settle for a small fraction of those discretionary spending savings, while expanding Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and significantly scaling back other priorities.

To be sure, those earlier ambitions were wildly unrealistic. Republicans enjoy only a razor-thin House majority, while Democrats control the Senate and White House. And the debt limit was a hostage most Republican lawmakers knew they could not shoot. The political reality is that most aggressive spending cut proposals are deeply unpopular even with Republican voters, and using the debt limit as a bargaining further accelerated the White House opposition to spending cuts. 

Yet the GOP benefited from Biden’s bad miscalculation that House Republicans would never be able to unify and pass a spending cut package, and that any effort would bring an intense voter backlash. House Republicans surprisingly passed the Limit, Save, Grow Act, which would have saved $4.8 trillion over 10 years: $3.2 trillion by cutting appropriations and capping annual growth at 1 percent for a decade, and the rest through expanding welfare work requirements, streamlining red tape, and repealing student loan forgiveness, clean energy subsidies and IRS funding. When it proved relatively popular, the president had no backup plan and was therefore forced to negotiate. Seeing Biden reluctantly come to the negotiating table only accelerated expectations among the GOP. Those soaring expectations explain the conservative disappointment at the release of the modest final deal.

A weak deal.

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