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Kevin McCarthy’s Biggest Test Yet
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Kevin McCarthy’s Biggest Test Yet

House Republicans will have to overcome thin margins to pass a debt-ceiling bill.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) walks outside the U.S. Capitol on April 20, 2023. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Good morning. Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill tonight, and they have a lot on their plates. First and foremost: House Republican leaders will try to pass their debt ceiling bill, a bid to show GOP unity and strengthen their negotiating stance ahead of a summer deadline. President Joe Biden wants a “clean” debt ceiling increase, while Republicans say they won’t support lifting the $31.4 trillion limit without cuts to federal spending, among other demands.

Here are a few dynamics we’re watching this week as GOP leaders try to unify their conference around their plan:

This is McCarthy’s biggest test yet as House speaker.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy pushed through 15 rounds of voting to claim the gavel in January—showing just how fractious his conference can be, and how difficult it is to corral members with only four votes to spare. He’s faced numerous challenges in navigating the Republican conference since then, particularly in trying to bring a package of immigration bills to the floor. GOP leaders have had to be nimble, cutting deals with members to win their support on agenda items and negotiating behind the scenes over amendments that might have hurt a given bill’s chances of passage.

McCarthy’s election to the speakership came only after he gave much of his power to rank-and-file members. They wanted more of a say in the legislative process, and they’ve gotten it. The chamber has seen relatively free-wheeling amendment votes, debate in committees before bills come to the floor, and far-right members exerting power within the House Rules Committee.

Members have negotiated with McCarthy over what they’d like to see in the debt limit measure, meanwhile, but this process hasn’t gone through congressional committees and it likely won’t be open to amendments on the House floor. This bill is being driven almost entirely by McCarthy himself: His office pulled it together, he decided when it was going to come to the floor, and he is spearheading the effort to pass it. (The Washington Post’s Paul Kane had an insightful look last week at this departure from the open legislative process members claimed they wanted.)

McCarthy is flexing more of his power as House speaker to set the chamber’s agenda, but that doesn’t mean his job is secure. If he can’t win enough votes to pass the bill this week, members may lose some confidence in him as their leader. The White House would also be a lot less willing to take McCarthy’s demands seriously: Democrats want to see if Republicans are actually able to agree to a plan.

As we wrote last week, the measure would hike the nation’s borrowing cap by $1.5 trillion or until March 2024, whichever comes first. It also caps discretionary government spending at fiscal year 2022 levels and limits future spending growth to no more than 1 percent each year for the next decade. It imposes new work requirements for recipients of social safety net programs and repeals a host of green energy and climate-related tax credits while boosting domestic oil and gas drilling.

Which members will break from the party?

For now, most dissent about the legislation seems to focus on its repeal of tax credits and incentives for green projects. South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace has said her district is expecting development due to those incentives, many of which came in Democratic bills in the first two years of Biden’s presidency.

“I’m concerned about some of the things that’ll hurt some green energy like solar,” Mace said last week. “Solar is huge—not only in the Lowcountry, but across the entire state of South Carolina, it’s huge. This would adversely affect solar.”

Virginia Rep. Jen Kiggans and New York Rep. George Santos have also expressed concerns about rolling back green tax credits. But those members haven’t yet outright said they will oppose the legislation. They’re still talking with GOP leaders and might be persuaded to back the team.

On the other end of the spectrum, House conservatives argue the bill’s work requirements should be stricter. Rep. Matt Gaetz said Monday he is still pushing for a 30-hour-per-week work requirement for Medicaid recipients. The bill as written would impose a 20-hour-per-week requirement for the program. Gaetz also wants to see the new rules begin in fiscal year 2024—later this year—rather than fiscal year 2025.

There’s also the fact that some Republicans have never supported a debt limit increase of any kind. The House Rules Committee will meet to debate the bill this afternoon: We’ll be watching what conservative Reps. Chip Roy, Thomas Massie, and Ralph Norman have to say about it.

And it’s not just a matter of winning the debate. Republicans will have to make sure their members are present and ready to vote when they bring the bill to the floor. The GOP did away with proxy voting when they took the chamber, meaning every absence can threaten a bill. 

It helps McCarthy’s whip operation that the bill won’t actually become law. In a divided government, a GOP wishlist like this has no chance of passing the Senate too. Republicans who disagree with the rollback of green tax credits, for example, may decide to ultimately support the bill because it won’t have the force of law and can be viewed largely as a bid to move forward with debt ceiling talks.

McCarthy’s whip team says the bill isn’t open for negotiation. McCarthy is painting the decision as one to roll back Democrats’ priorities and avoid default or to “go along with Biden’s reckless spending.” 

“We will hold a vote this week and we will pass it,” he said on Fox News over the weekend.

Will Democrats’ posture change after this vote?

McCarthy and Biden haven’t met to discuss the debt limit in months. With a summer deadline looming, Democrats may feel a greater sense of urgency to hash out a deal and end the stalemate.

Politico’s Nicholas Wu and Adam Cancryn last week reported on how Democrats see the situation, writing that if McCarthy is able to pass his debt ceiling bill, Democratic lawmakers may become more vocal in urging Biden to meet with Republicans. Some Democrats are already growing agitated. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia released a statement after McCarthy released his plan last week, arguing the long delay in holding another meeting between Biden and McCarthy “signals a deficiency of leadership, and it must change.”

“While it is reasonable to sincerely disagree with any specific debt ceiling approach, we will achieve a historic default, and the economic whirlwind which follows, if President Biden continues to refuse to even negotiate a reasonable and commonsense compromise,” Manchin wrote. “To that end, I applaud Speaker McCarthy for putting forward a proposal that would prevent default and rein in federal spending.”

Other Democrats have been largely unified behind the White House’s hardline negotiating stance. But some moderates in the House have been working with Republicans on a compromise plan, recognizing the need to give the GOP some concessions to make a deal.

On the Floor

The House’s schedule depends on the debt ceiling bill this week: When GOP leaders are confident they have the votes, they’ll bring it to the floor. Members are also expected to consider several bills related to satellite policy, including one intended to block entities that pose a national security threat from obtaining licenses for satellite launches.

A full list of bills the House may take up this week is available here.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Monday that the Senate will consider legislation this week to remove a deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The proposed constitutional amendment would guarantee equal rights under the law regardless of sex. It failed to win enough support among the states in the 1970s and early 1980s to be ratified before a 1982 deadline that Congress put in place at the time.

Read more from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service here.

Key Hearings

  • The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning on America’s military posture in Europe. Information and livestream here.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will debate reproductive rights in post-Dobbs America during a hearing Wednesday morning. Information and livestream here.
  • The Senate Budget Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning about health costs related to climate change. Information and livestream here.
  • Senators on the homeland security panel will meet Wednesday morning to examine national security lessons learned from the Boston marathon bombing, which happened ten years ago this month. Information and livestream here.
  • A House Judiciary subcommittee will meet Wednesday afternoon for a hearing on how unaccompanied children are being exploited in crossing the southern border. Information and livestream here.
  • Members of the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Thursday morning on abuses of the FBI’s foreign intelligence surveillance authorities. Information and livestream here.
  •  A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee will meet Thursday afternoon to discuss a potential national privacy protection law. Information and livestream here.
  • A different Energy and Commerce panel will meet Thursday afternoon for a hearing on balancing scientific research and biological safety. Information and livestream here.

Of Note 

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.