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Who emerged from the debt talks stronger? Mostly America’s creditors

Speaker battles his right flank and age-related questions linger for Biden

President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy participate in the annual Friends of Ireland luncheon on March 17.
President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy participate in the annual Friends of Ireland luncheon on March 17. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

If anyone in Washington gained strength — much like a big-screen superhero — during the debt and spending talks, it was hard to tell this week.

That didn’t stop some from pushing the narrative that President Joe Biden or Speaker Kevin McCarthy were transformed into a political Incredible Hulk.

“So, I would say both McCarthy and Biden are politically stronger because they showed they can govern,” according to Dan Wessel of the Brookings Institution. “If you want to score who won, I would say Biden won.”

Clifford Smith, Washington director for the Middle East Forum and a former House aide, tweeted: “I admit: McCarthy is a stronger speaker than I thought.”

Political analyst David Rothkopf wrote Wednesday of Biden’s U.S. Air Force Academy graduation ceremony fall and debt default avoidance: “How do you stumble and yet land stronger than ever? How do you stumble and yet ensure it is your opponents who end up on their butts? Call it the Biden two-step.”

They were joined by a list of cable news pundits, some of whom went so far as to declare a garden of bipartisan legislation would soon blossom in Washington’s late-spring garden. One New York Times op-ed appeared in a Google search asking this provocative-if-overly-pollyannaish question: “Can Kevin McCarthy and Joe Biden Save Washington?”

These bold proclamations did not age well.

To determine whether either the president or speaker emerged from the debt talks stronger, a trip to a counterfactual Washington is required.

If McCarthy was indeed stronger, he would have smoothly pivoted this week to several GOP messaging bills, including measures to make gas stoves great again. If he had tamed his far-right faction by using more Democratic votes than his own to pass the debt and spending measure that fended off a default, they would have meekly returned to Washington and voted with their leader all week.

It turns out no House member did much voting this week, and McCarthy does not appear stronger. In fact, he sent members home after scheduling exactly zero votes for Wednesday or Thursday. House Freedom Caucus members and their conservative allies knocked down a rule on the floor for the stove bills and other measures, bringing the chamber to a standstill as they made more demands of McCarthy.

“We took a stand in January to end the era of the imperial speakership. We are concerned that the fundamental commitments that allowed Kevin McCarthy to assume the speakership have been violated as the consequences of the debt limit,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the rebels, said Tuesday.

“For the first time in over two decades, the House majority failed to pass a rule for considering upcoming legislation. What this means practically is they can’t vote on the main bills they had scheduled for this week. It’s a big, well-deserved blow to McCarthy’s sad speakership,” former Republican turned independent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan tweeted.

“The only way Americans can reclaim genuine representation — regardless of which party has the majority — is for the speaker to be put back in check,” Amash added, calling McCarthy and predecessors Nancy Pelosi and Paul D. Ryan “corrupt” and part of “an elected oligarchy.”

So much for the narrative that McCarthy emerged from the debt talks with more power.

Then there’s Biden, who notably played golf Sunday just days after his latest tumble at age 80.

In this alternative Washington with a stronger Biden, even House Republicans would be calling him a worthy negotiating opponent and leaving open the door to bipartisan talks on a range of issues.

CBS News’ Margaret Brennan on June 4 asked one of McCarthy’s lead negotiators, Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, about his remark to congressional reporters that Biden and the White House had “tire tracks” running up their backs after the talks.

“Because the White House laid down about seven red lines, including that they wouldn’t negotiate, that they wouldn’t allow anything to be done on work requirements, that they wouldn’t allow any changes to environmental laws, that they wouldn’t allow us to take any funds from IRS agents, and on and on,” Graves replied. “And yet, every single red line that they laid down, we crossed right over in negotiations.”

In a stronger-Biden Washington, he would be sending White House and administration officials to the Capitol for negotiations on an immigration bill or another China competition measure — and Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., might have even felt ample pressure to drop his blockade of some military nominations.

None of that happened this week.

‘Things happen’

Instead, by Tuesday the White House was fielding questions not about how the president would wield his newfound power but why he has had a series of slips, stumbles and falls since taking office.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre chafed at the premise of the question, growing noticeably annoyed.

“Here’s the thing … things happen. Other presidents have had similar situations, as you know, and I’m sure you reported on the last president, who has had a similar situation,” she said. “And so look, things happen. This is a president that delivers and will continue to deliver for the American people, and that’s what he cares about.”

With that, she ended the briefing and exited stage right.

That came one day before a poll made clear a key voting bloc also is worried about what would be an 82-year-old Biden come Inauguration Day 2025.

Had Biden netted more political capital over the past few weeks, nearly half of independent voters wouldn’t have told pollsters for The Economist and YouGov they believe his age “severely” limits his ability to be the leader of the country and the free world.

Back in reality, however, that is exactly how 49 percent of respondents replied to a question about Biden’s age, highlighting a problem for the tumble-prone president as he begins his bid for a second term.

Jean-Pierre is not alone. Other White House officials have pointedly scoffed at similar questions. His aides’ defensiveness about the octogenarian’s time served on the planet isn’t exactly helping convince independents he would be physically and mentally up for a second term.

McCarthy’s standoff and Biden’s stumbles show neither emerged much stronger. That’s because the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 was not exactly Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act or Barack Obama’s 2011 Affordable Care Act.

Despite McCarthy’s claims that it was a “transformational” bill, it was a rather modest compromise. And one cobbled together under the pressure cooker of a default deadline that mostly granted more power, by suspending the borrowing limit into 2025, to the country’s many creditors.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter

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