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The ultimate no-win debt deal for McCarthy, House Republicans

Speaker had his pockets picked by President Biden, and secured zero seats in 2024

Reps. Garret Graves, R-La. (left), and Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., speak to reporters about debt ceiling and spending negotiations on May 23.
Reps. Garret Graves, R-La. (left), and Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., speak to reporters about debt ceiling and spending negotiations on May 23. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Hurrah. The great debt ceiling tightrope walk of 2023 is — almost — over.

Except for the inevitable spills, chills and thrills that accompany any attempt by Congress to pass emergency legislation in time to avert the emergency.

The way that Speaker Kevin McCarthy tells it, his underdog House Republicans won the most glorious victory since David encountered a big galoot named Goliath. Of course, the estimated $136 billion in negotiated budgetary savings over the next two years amounts to a rounding error in the $31.4 trillion national debt.

But that didn’t stop McCarthy, R-Calif., from burbling in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Only because of Republicans’ resolve did we achieve this transformative change to how Washington operates.”

A more realistic interpretation: Brinkmanship by House Republicans squandered the first five months of 2023 on a dangerously unnecessary battle that won the Republicans little they could not have achieved through their control of appropriations in the House.

There are persuasive hints, emanating from the Biden administration, that House Republicans got rolled.

As The New York Times reports, Republicans’ heralded clawback of $20 billion from IRS enforcement is smoke and mirrors. The IRS can merely reprogram appropriated money that it had slated to spend later in this decade — and use it now to cover the shortfall.

Liberals are understandably upset that the compromise phases in a new work requirement for healthy food-stamp recipients ages 50 to 54. But the package also exempts veterans and the homeless from all food-stamp work obligations.

Sometime around 2027, academic researchers will produce a paper calculating whether the 2023 debt ceiling and spending deal slightly increased poverty in America or slightly reduced it. Regardless of the paper’s conclusions, almost no one on Capitol Hill will notice or care.

By now, a few readers are beginning to suspect that — surprise — the Republican willingness to play Russian roulette with the debt ceiling was all about politics.

But more than 17 months before the 2024 election, it is hard to see how the pyrotechnics over the debt ceiling help McCarthy cling to his tiny House majority.

McCarthy’s leverage in the negotiations with the White House was based on the reality that many voters would blame President Joe Biden for the economic cataclysm that would follow a default on the debt.

But now, Biden has gotten a debt-ceiling extension until early 2025 without giving up anything major that would cut into Democratic turnout in the next election.

Democratic grumbles

Sure, there will be grumbles over food stamps and permitting reform, including a West Virginia pipeline that Joe Manchin craves. But for Democrats, the debt ceiling deal again proves that Biden excels at negotiating with Republicans in Congress.

In The Wall Street Journal, McCarthy claimed that the so-called Fiscal Responsibility Act demonstrated that the House Republicans are fulfilling their pre-election pledge to “stop the out-of-control inflationary spending that is harming our country.”

Beyond the hyperbolic excess of McCarthy’s claim, there is the political question: Will trimming discretionary domestic spending at the margins help the House Republicans in 2024?

Remember that in a presidential election year, House incumbents get as much attention as largely unnoticed spear-carriers at the opera.

Things used to be different. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter, 27 percent of voters split their ticket opting for one party for president and the other party for Congress. By 2016, when Donald Trump pulled off the upset of the century, that ticket-splitting number had dwindled to 16 percent.

But with the rise of intense polarization and partisanship — accentuated by the Trump presidency — only 11 percent of voters split their tickets in 2020.

For 2024, that trajectory means that about nine out of every 10 voters will not even bother to think much about the House race in their district before they cast party-line ballots. As a result, McCarthy’s fate is inextricably linked to the performance of the Republican presidential nominee.

A quick look at the map underscores the daunting road ahead for House Republicans in holding their majority.

The Cook Political Report rates 10 GOP-held House seats as Toss Ups for 2024. Seven of those seats are in states where a Biden sweep is all but foreordained: New York, California and New Jersey. Two other Republican Toss Up seats are in Arizona, the ultimate swing state, where voters will be bombarded with presidential campaign ads.

McCarthy’s weak week

In fact, McCarthy owes his current majority to the under-performance at the top of the ticket by New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul in 2022 and a soporific gubernatorial race in California. But Democrats do not normally have turnout problems in presidential election years.

If the Republicans nominate Trump or a polarizing figure like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, it guarantees that the GOP presidential campaign will revolve around emotionally charged issues such as immigration and phantom targets such as “the woke agenda.”

In that hot-house political environment, exactly how many voters in swing districts are going to weigh the record of House Republicans in terms of fiscal responsibility? How many in November 2024 will even remember the McCarthy-backed Fiscal Responsibility Act?

Not all vulnerable House Republicans are even following the McCarthy playbook. GOP incendiary Rep. Lauren Boebert won the closest House election in the country in 2022, carrying her Colorado district by 546 votes. Boebert, who voted against McCarthy for speaker, announced she opposes the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

In short, it has been an impressive week for McCarthy.

He had his pockets picked by Biden as he negotiated a debt ceiling deal that will probably not safeguard a single GOP House seat in 2024. One more triumph like this — and the words “McCarthy victory” may enter the language as a term of derision.

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