A bipartisan majority in the U.S. House took a major step yesterday towards avoiding a breach in the nation’s statutory debt limit. By a vote of 314-117 (including majorities of both parties), the chamber passed the “Fiscal Responsibility Act,” a measure raising the debt ceiling and imposing some limits on future domestic spending.
What does this significant legislative event tell us about the speakership of Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and political parties in the House?
1. The Speaker has shown that he can govern. Many, including me, have been highly skeptical of Speaker McCarthy’s ability to lead the House and the Republican Conference in particular. In the past, he has demonstrated more fealty to Donald Trump than to his own colleagues. His week-long struggle to get elected Speaker ended only after he made significant concessions to conservative rebels, including giving them important positions of influence in the House and the GOP. On the debt limit issue specifically, Senate Republican leaders pointedly refused to get involved, putting the burden entirely on McCarthy.
Yet the Speaker was able to bring enough House Republicans together in April to pass a debt limit bill by the slimmest of margins. President Biden, who until then had refused to negotiate with the GOP on raising the debt ceiling, was forced to come to the bargaining table. Biden, McCarthy, and their (well-chosen) proxies successfully overcame multiple setbacks to reach a final deal.
With a floor vote on the measure looming, several potentially influential conservative rebels within the House GOP, including Reps. Thomas Massie (KY), Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA), and Jim Jordan (OH) provided public and private support for the final bill at key moments. This was almost certainly due to McCarthy's pursuit of what former former Speaker Tip O'Neill biographer John Farrell called the "politics of inclusion," bringing potential gadflies into the decision-making process so they have a stake in ensuring their party's success.
McCarthy’s success is even more impressive when compared with the struggles of his Republican predecessors against the right flank of the GOP. Remember when Speaker John Boehner complained that conservative interest groups were torpedoing the party’s agenda? Some of those same groups came out against the debt limit bill, making it a “key vote” to use against lawmakers in the 2024 elections. Most Republicans ignored them.
2. The influence of the Freedom Caucus is limited. Once McCarthy and Biden agreed to a debt ceiling bill, members of the House Freedom Caucus began attacking the measure. Caucus members lambasted it at a press conference, calling it “fuzzy math,” “a bunch of fake news,” and “the fiscal irresponsibility act,” and they vowed to do all they could to defeat it. The Freedom Caucus also took an official position against the measure, albeit not until shortly before the vote.
But the Caucus ultimately could do little to stop the debt limit agreement. Its two members who sit on the Rules Committee voted against the rule for considering the bill, but it wasn’t enough to kill the rule. The group’s traditional means of leverage -- voting with the minority party on the floor to reject GOP proposals – was stymied by internal defections and the willingness of Democrats to vote with the majority party. With less than a week before the country would breach the debt limit, most Republicans were unpersuaded by the Caucus that a new deal could be negotiated with the White House.
Some Caucus members resorted to making threats to remove McCarthy. Others claimed without evidence that McCarthy had broken his word that measures would pass with only certain kinds of majorities, like unanimous Republican votes on the Rules Committee or more Republicans voting for a measure than Democrats. None of these threats or claims were especially credible.
This hardly means that the Freedom Caucus has lost its influence. The debt limit measure that passed in April largely copied a proposal offered by the Caucus. McCarthy also made sure to keep key Caucus members like Jim Jordan happy with the final agreement, underscoring their political sway within the Conference. On more partisan measures for which Democrats are likely to be in opposition, the group will remain a pivotal bloc on the floor. Nonetheless, the debt limit bill has shown that McCarthy can overcome the Freedom Caucus's opposition when it matters.
3. House Republicans cannot always go it alone. In this case, overcoming the Freedom Caucus's opposition meant turning to the minority party for help. And Democrats took advantage of that, reportedly reaching a deal with the Speaker that involved getting more earmarks in their districts.
Democrats also made a point of demonstrating the extent to which McCarthy relied upon their support. When the rule for considering the bill seemed to be in danger of losing (thanks to the opposition of most Democrats and about half of the House Freedom Caucus), roughly thirty members of the minority party refrained from voting “to make Rs sweat” until Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (NY) gave the signal to vote yes. Over a hundred Democrats did the same thing on the debt limit bill itself, waiting to vote until the measure had a majority (and McCarthy had provided 60% of the “yes” votes from his own party).
McCarthy can hardly take full credit for Democratic cooperation on the debt limit. Democrats feared that the president would suffer politically if the debt limit were breached, and Biden lobbied House Democrats in the days leading up to the vote (and failed to win over the most progressive members of his party, making it an “ends vs. the middle” vote). Nor should we expect McCarthy to rely on Democrats to the same extent on future legislation, particularly partisan measures that don’t involve calamitous consequences for both parties if they don’t pass.
With a tiny majority and divided party government, however, the Speaker will almost certainly have to turn to Democrats again. Doing so while maintaining the goodwill of his own party will continue to be one of McCarthy’s biggest challenges as Speaker.