The Real Debt Limit Fight Is Yet to Come
WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Wednesday did what many of them vowed they never would: They voted to raise the federal debt ceiling. Some were not particularly enthusiastic about it.
“It sucks,” said Representative Lauren Boebert, a hard-right Republican from Colorado whose vote was carefully watched as party leaders squeezed recalcitrant lawmakers. “But you gotta do what you gotta do.”
As a reward for their begrudging support of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s call for legislation he said would strengthen his bargaining power against President Biden, right-wing conservatives earned the chance to take another debt limit vote sometime this summer. But the next one could be on legislation lacking the budget cuts and policy rollbacks that many Republicans demanded to barely nudge this doomed plan over the top.
The strenuous effort required by Mr. McCarthy and his allies to win approval of a proposal that everyone agreed was going nowhere highlighted the difficulties and risks ahead as the nation edges toward a possible first-ever federal default. It also made clear that some combination of Democratic and Republican votes would ultimately be required to raise the debt limit to avert a fiscal catastrophe.
The bill approved on Wednesday is most likely the high-water mark for House Republicans, far more conservative than any agreement they can expect to get out of their standoff with Mr. Biden and Senate Democrats as they push for negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. Some quickly declared that they would accept no less than the spending reductions and policy reversals it contained.
“I’m not interested in anything coming back — anything but what we voted on,” Representative Ralph Norman, Republican of South Carolina, told reporters.
On the House floor on Wednesday, Representative Derrick Van Orden, a first-term member from Wisconsin whose opposition — along with that of other Midwestern Republicans — forced Mr. McCarthy to change the bill at the last moment, also suggested that he had gone as far as he was willing to.
“There will be no further negotiations from my office,” Mr. Van Orden declared.
But Democrats will never accept the House bill. Instead, they are insisting on a debt limit measure without conditions. Republicans — certainly not the archconservatives like Mr. Norman and Ms. Boebert who held their noses as they voted on Wednesday — will never support that or anything less than what they just endorsed.
Something has to give, or the economy will suffer the consequences.
Top Republicans now hope that passage of the House G.O.P. plan prompts a dialogue between Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy that results in a deal both sides can swallow even if it is not fully to their liking. Fig leaves might be in order to protect Mr. McCarthy from criticism that he gave too much ground on spending and to allow the White House to say it had not abandoned its refusal to negotiate over the debt limit.
Some Republicans believe the dire threat posed to the economy should both sides remain locked in their positions opens the door to a bargain, though they acknowledge it will most likely cost them conservative votes.
“If a deal comes back as a negotiated settlement, there will be some people who will inevitably be disappointed,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma and the chairman of the Rules Committee. “But I do think we’ll get something, and I’m comfortable the speaker will bring us back something that a majority of us can and will vote for.”
Democrats insist they are willing to talk about spending, just not in direct exchange for a debt limit increase.
“We’re happy to have a conversation on our spending priorities — we absolutely welcome that conversation,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts. “But this isn’t a conversation. They handed us a ransom note.”
Rank-and-file Republicans in both the House and the Senate have come to loathe voting for a debt limit increase, seeing it as a betrayal of fiscally conservative values even though both parties have approved the spending covered by the increase.
Also, it is the kind of vote that can be used to hammer them from the right in a primary. Instead they have mainly left it to Democrats, Republican leaders and more moderate colleagues not willing to be complicit in a default to get the job done over the years. The fact that Mr. McCarthy lost only four of 221 Republicans on a debt limit increase was notable given the party’s recent history.
But Democrats say the House vote was actually a step backward since it has hardened the Republican position.
“If anything, the House’s actions have made the likelihood of default more likely,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said on Thursday. “It locks the House into an unacceptable position and pulls us even further apart. This shows the real solution is a clean bipartisan plan to avoid default.”
Democrats believe they can still force Republicans’ hands. With time slipping away and the Treasury Department reaching the limit of its ability to pay the nation’s bills in the next few months, they calculate that some Republicans will panic about the potential economic and political fallout if the government defaults, allowing a so-called clean, or unconditioned, increase. The threat of default has always spurred a resolution in the past, though sometimes at the final hour.
If there is no give by Republican leaders, Democrats say they can always try to employ a discharge petition to force a consensus debt limit bill to the floor by rounding up signatures from their side along with those from Republicans willing to circumvent their leaders if necessary. That approach is still considered a last-ditch possibility to be tried only in case of emergency.
Others believe that neither side will relent until the financial markets begin to respond, threatening the investments and retirement savings of millions of Americans.
Congress has been at this crossroads before and has previously managed to wriggle out of the impasse without devastating consequences. But one difference this time is the makeup of the House Republican majority. It is further to the right than in the past and seems more willing to entertain the possibility of an economic crisis to get its way.
Persuading House Republicans to vote for a debt limit increase once was hard enough. Asking them to do it a second time without meeting their demands could prove impossible.