Why the debt talks are McCarthy’s second job interview

Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s negotiations with President Joe Biden are serving another purpose besides reaching a debt deal — as his second job interview with conservatives.

As the talks lurch closer to the Treasury Department’s default deadline, it should not be forgotten that McCarthy’s speakership is still on the line, with any single disgruntled member empowered to force a vote on ousting him. So the California Republican must ensure his right flank can swallow any deal he strikes with the White House, or at least hold its nose while voting no.

For the moment, multiple members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus are pleased with McCarthy’s outreach. They say they’re confident he won’t let them down in the debt fight. But their support will be difficult to maintain: A majority of Freedom Caucus members want him to refuse to accept any changes to the House GOP debt plan that passed along party lines last month.

“We’re behind our speaker. … The conference is united,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), one of the 20 conservatives who initially opposed McCarthy to win the gavel. “That said, I also don’t think there’s any interest in our conference in weakening or undermining or diminishing what we’ve done … [McCarthy’s] going to stare down the Democrats and make them sign that bill.”

If McCarthy fails to walk that tightrope, he risks losing perhaps the highest marks he has ever received from his conservative critics. If he goes too far in the other direction, bringing the nation to the brink of default by refusing to bend, he risks alienating swing-seat incumbents he needs in order to keep the majority.

The Freedom Caucus issued a recent statement on the talks that, while urging McCarthy to give no ground, but offered no clues as to how their members would vote on any deal. But first-term battleground-district Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) takes a view of the speaker’s mandate that’s nearly the opposite of Good’s.

“We have a bipartisan government. The only way we get a debt ceiling bill adopted is through some degree of compromise,” Molinaro said. “I joined my colleagues in giving Speaker McCarthy the ability to negotiate — negotiation means that you accept some differences.”

While McCarthy sounded more optimistic on Monday night than during a Friday stall in the talks, his deliberateness is further emboldening some conservatives. The longer that the debt talks continue, the more priorities that the speaker’s right flank is pushing into the discussion — most recently, a House GOP border bill that got no Democratic support and even some Republican senators are wary of.

Over the weekend, GOP negotiators leaned into their demands for stricter work requirements for government social programs as well as the addition of parts of their border bill to any final agreement, a position Democrats viewed as a shift in the wrong direction.

Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), chair of the Republican Study Committee, described conservatives’ goal as giving McCarthy “more arrows in his quiver” as he faces off with Biden.

“There’s a lot of these things that the speaker is going to have to sift through and look at,” Hern said. “As Joe Biden tries to take something off the table he can insert something else.”

Pro-Trump voices off the Hill are helping encourage House conservatives to dig in: Steve Bannon spoke at a Saturday event hosted by the Trump-aligned Center for Renewing America telling some Republican members to push for additional concessions in any debt deal.

“Up the ante, be bold and stick to our guns. That’s his message,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who heard Bannon talk in Virginia. “It was the most fascinating speech I’ve heard.”

Republicans across the ideological spectrum of the conference are proud of the debt plan they passed last month, arguing that it gives them the upper hand with Democrats who have yet to even attempt to steer a clean hike of the borrowing limit through the Senate.

Perhaps most surprisingly, some conservatives are dismissing or dodging the prospect that a deal with Biden would prove unpalatable enough to try to oust him from the speakership. Those same conservatives fought hard for — and extracted from McCarthy — an agreement that a single member could move for a simple-majority vote on expelling the speaker from the top spot.

Yet they sound less than keen on using that power to dislodge him.

“The drama, the drama, the drama,” House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said when asked whether the so-called “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair is on the table for conservatives if they don’t like the final deal. “We are focused on where we are as the only side of the building that has passed legislation.”

Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), another past McCarthy skeptic, said that “I don’t even like to give consideration to someone being forced to resort to the motion to vacate” to vent dissatisfaction with the speaker.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of McCarthy’s biggest antagonists in the past, argued on Monday that “literally nobody except the press” was talking about the possibility of ousting the speaker.

McCarthy has sidestepped questions about whether he is concerned about losing conservative support during the debt talks, at times steering those queries to criticism of Democratic moves in the negotiations.

Asked Monday about whether he’d only put a debt bill on the floor if it can win a majority of House GOP votes, the speaker replied: “We’ll have a large number, more than half, of Republicans supporting it.”

That may bring talks with the Biden team right up against the June 1 deadline, if things continue in their current vein. McCarthy described a “better” tone as he left the White House on Monday night, but the two sides remain far apart on nearly every contentious issue in the talks — from how much to cut spending from current levels to the work requirements the GOP is pressing for.

If Democrats were hoping that rank-and-file Republicans, particularly those in battleground seats, might lose patience and press for McCarthy to bend, there are also few signs of that sort of movement.

Most House Republicans are united in one argument: The GOP debt ceiling plan was the first offer on the table, and that gave McCarthy momentum to push Democrats to rein in spending.

Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.), a battleground-district Republican, said in an interview that compromise is “the nature of negotiation.” But he underscored that Republicans “shouldn’t negotiate with ourselves before the President actually sits down in good faith.”

Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), a McCarthy ally who won a battleground district that swung to Biden in 2020, said that “I see no dissent” among any of the House GOP’s various factions so far.

“Just talking amongst fellow members,” he said, “we’re all unified behind the speaker.”