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Deal or no deal

There’s Only One Question Now: Can Kevin McCarthy Deliver the Votes?

The speaker has his debt ceiling deal—but saboteurs are lying in wait.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks to members of the media.

A deal to raise the debt ceiling and end the most recent default standoff has been struck. Now, as the debt deal moves to Congress, there’s only one question: Can House Speaker Kevin McCarthy deliver enough Republican votes in the House to pass the deal that he negotiated and avoid an economic meltdown?

That’s the only question left because with respect to the three other key legislative players in the deal drama, the questions are pretty much already answered. House Democrats under Hakeem Jeffries will complain about the new work requirements for some recipients of federal aid, as well they should. This is just another Republican attempt to punish poor people that will have a very limited impact on the federal balance sheets but an outsize effect on some not insignificant number of ordinary people’s lives. Some progressive Democrats will vote against the bill for that reason. But on balance, this deal is far less bad than Democrats had reason to fear this time last week. Regardless, Democrats play by the rules, and they don’t want to endanger Joe Biden’s reelection chances. A critical mass will vote “yes.”

The same can be said of Senate Democrats, who are even more ready to be accommodating. As of Monday afternoon, I hadn’t seen Bernie Sanders weigh in on the deal, but chances are strong that virtually all Democrats (and independents Sanders and Angus King) go along. Mitch McConnell’s Senate Republicans are a more complicated organism, but McConnell has spoken of the deal approvingly, and there’s no reason to think that when the time comes, he won’t be able to round up the necessary votes.

That leaves McCarthy. He needs an outcome here that accomplishes two goals. The first and more obvious goal is for the bill to pass. But the second, while less obvious to the general public, is certainly rather important to Kevin McCarthy: The vote has to be concluded in such a way that he can remain speaker. Without getting too down in the weeds, this means that he needs a majority of Republicans to affirm his judgment that this was a good deal.

I imagine he was feeling pretty confident when the deal was struck Saturday night that he had those votes, but we’ll see what these coming hours will bring. First, the Rules Committee has to approve sending the bill to the floor. Republicans control the Rules Committee 9–4, which is standard. But three of those nine are Freedom Caucusers—indeed, putting them on the Rules Committee was one of the conditions McCarthy had to meet to get the votes to become speaker.

If those three all vote against moving the bill—and two of the three have already signaled their opposition—then McCarthy will be reliant on the Democratic members of Rules to help move the bill forward. This never happens in the Rules Committee (this Newsweek piece explains the background well). It would probably happen here, because again, Democrats don’t want to be accomplices in handing their president such a huge loss. But it would be humiliating for McCarthy and could lead to a wider revolt. The Rules Committee will vote Tuesday, probably at night.

Then there’s the question of outside critics on the right. While things were comparatively placid over the holiday weekend, at least publicly, three noteworthy critics of the deal have emerged. Russ Vought, a Trump administration budget director who was advising the GOP on debt strategy, said he was “absolutely amazed at how bad” the deal was. Steve Bannon added that the deal is a “total surrender” by McCarthy and that any Republican who votes for it should be silenced. Finally, Ron DeSantis slammed the deal on Fox News on Monday.

Silent, as of Monday evening: Donald Trump. Let’s say he comes out against the deal. How many votes does that move? Hard to say. His impact on the Texas state legislature and its impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton over the weekend was pretty minimal. But on a federal issue, especially one of this importance, he probably has more juice.

So the far-right members of the Rules Committee, or outside right-wing critics, or Trump, or all three—these are the saboteurs who could derail this deal. Nevertheless, I still think it’s more likely than not that McCarthy gets his votes. What will we have learned about him?

Well, as much as he and his people are going to spin this as a tremendous victory, it’s just laughably not. The budget cuts, while terrible, aren’t nearly on the scale the radicals wanted. They’re not even gutting the IRS; just taking a few billion out of Biden’s recent increase. These people came to Washington to burn the house down. This is barely setting a window sash on fire. We learned, in other words, that deep down, he is either (1) a very bad negotiator or (2) a conventional horse-trading politician, which is of course far worse from the Freedom Caucus vantage point.

As for the Democrats? We are learning, yet again, that they don’t have any concept of how to reshape reality on their terms. Debt ceiling hostage-taking is not normal, in any way, shape, or form. But now that Biden has negotiated with McCarthy on this, it is being normalized further—as if it’s something that a Democratic president should do with a GOP House. That’s a dangerous development.

How could Democrats have changed this? They were in a tough position, but they should at least have talked more about the Fourteenth Amendment option. It was risky? So what? At least talk about it, explain to people what it involves, turn the spotlight on the Supreme Court. But they didn’t do it. Pay attention to what happened here: Republicans moved the Overton window yet again. They took a totally abnormal thing and made it more normal. Democrats had an opportunity to move the window in the other direction, and they didn’t take it.

But we’re not out of these woods yet. These next 48 hours will teach us how many house-burners there really are in the GOP caucus: whether there are four or four score or even more, and whether their nominal leader is in charge of them, or the other way around. And even if McCarthy gets the votes Wednesday, the sentiment Bannon expressed is a real one on the right, unhinged as it is in the real word, and one of these days, it will either sweep him out of the speaker’s chair—or the voters will.