President Joe Biden called on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to name his demands ahead of their high-stakes meeting Wednesday to discuss the debt limit. “Show me your budget,” Biden said Monday, “and I’ll show you mine.” The trouble is, it seems pretty clear that McCarthy doesn’t have a plan, and still seems to be scrambling to come up with one. “Their plan, as led by the extremists in their party, is to complain about spending, not raise the debt ceiling, but not actually offer a plan that says, ‘This is what we’re going to cut,’” as Democratic Representative Adam Smith told Fox News over the weekend.
“Any serious conversation about economic and fiscal policy needs to start with a clear understanding of the participants’ goals and proposals,” the White House said in a memo Monday. “Speaker McCarthy and his caucus need to transparently lay out to the American people their fiscal and economic proposals in the normal budget process.”
The Republican House takeover in the midterms practically guaranteed a debt-ceiling showdown, with a new majority eager to flex its muscle and make Biden’s life hell. But the crisis at hand could make the budget nightmares of 2013 and 2011 look mild by comparison. Those standoffs, during Barack Obama‘s presidency, were driven by Republican hardliners making unreasonable demands, including that the Affordable Care Act be defunded. This time, those hardliners seem almost determined to hold the economy hostage more or less for the thrill of it. The chaos is both the means and the end.
“If we can’t say no now,” far-right Republican Andy Biggs tweeted Monday, “when else can we?”
As I wrote last week, McCarthy has been trying to come up with a way to say “no” while also promising he won’t send the nation off the cliff into financial catastrophe and won’t touch Social Security and Medicare. The best he’s managed so far has been to broadly call on Biden to make cuts, without saying exactly what he thinks ought to be cut. “I want to look the president in the eye [and hear him] tell me there’s not one dollar of wasteful spending in government,” McCarthy said last week.
But that line isn’t really working. For one, his effort to balance the budget isn’t feasible if he takes entitlement programs and military spending off the table. (McCarthy has left the door open to some cuts to defense, but it’s unclear such a proposal would get much support from his party, and he hasn’t said what the cuts would look like; Jim Jordan has suggested slashing funding for “woke” military policies..) For another, even if McCarthy was able to come up with some demands and extract concessions on them, the extremists in his party may be unappeasable. “No,” Indiana Republican Greg Pence, the former vice president’s older brother, told CNN when asked if he would vote to raise the debt limit, even if it included “every” single one of his priorities.
With the slimmest of majorities, McCarthy can only suffer a handful of defections for his House to approve a debt-limit raise, making this the biggest and most consequential test so far of his ability to hold that caucus together. To this point, the biggest stakes of his clumsy efforts at dealmaking have been for his own political future. Now, the nation’s economy is in the balance, along with spending programs with enormous implications for Americans’ lives. “Let’s not play political games,” McCarthy said Monday, after promising there would be no default. But the games seem to be all he and his caucus have got right now — and the longer they try to get Biden to blink first, the bigger the danger of default will become.