WASHINGTON – Under fire from conservatives, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy worked furiously Tuesday to sell fellow Republicans on the debt ceiling and budget deal he negotiated with President Joe Biden and win approval in time to avert a potentially disastrous U.S. default.
Meeting behind closed doors over pizza for more that two hours at the Capitol, McCarthy walked Republicans through the details, fielded questions and encouraged them not to lose sight of the bill's budget savings, even though they are far less than many conservatives wanted.
“We’re going to pass the bill,” McCarthy said as he exited the session.
The hard-fought measure is now headed to a House vote Wednesday. Quick approval by both the House and Senate would ensure government checks will continue to go out to Social Security recipients, veterans and others, and prevent financial upheaval worldwide by allowing Treasury to keep paying U.S. debts.
Overall the 99-page package restricts spending for the next two years, lifts the debt limit and includes policy changes such as new work requirements for older Americans receiving food aid and approval of an Appalachian energy pipeline that many Democrats oppose. The House Rules Committee on Tuesday voted 7-6, with two Republicans opposed, to advance the measure to the floor, signaling the tough vote still ahead.
With few lawmakers expected to be fully satisfied, Biden and McCarthy are counting on pulling majority support from the political center, a rarity in divided Washington, to prevent a federal default. Some 218 votes are needed for passage in the 435-member House.
Leaders of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus lambasted the compromise as falling well short of the spending cuts they demand, and they vowed to try to halt passage by Congress. A much larger conservative faction, the Republican Study Committee, declined to take a position. Even rank-and-file centrist conservatives were not sure, leaving McCarthy desperately hunting for votes.
Biden was speaking directly to lawmakers, making more than 100 one-on-one calls, the White House said. Top administration officials are heading to Capitol Hill to brief Democrats privately ahead of Wednesday’s planned vote.
Late in the day, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the spending restrictions in the package would reduce deficits by $1.5 trillion over the decade, a top goal for the Republicans trying to curb the debt load.
But in a surprise that could further erode Republican support, the GOP's drive to impose work requirements on older Americans receiving food stamps ends up boosting spending by $2.1 billion over the time period. That's because the final deal exempted veterans and homeless people, expanding the food stamp rolls by some 78,000 people monthly, the CBO said.
House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said it was up to McCarthy to turn out votes from some two-thirds of the Republican majority, a high bar the speaker may not be able to reach. Still, Jeffries said the Democrats would do their part to avoid failure.
“It is my expectation that House Republicans would keep their promise and deliver at least 150 votes as it relates to an agreement that they themselves negotiated,” Jeffries said. “Democrats will make sure that the country does not default.”
McCarthy could expect no help from the far right.
“This deal fails, fails completely, and that’s why these members and others will be absolutely opposed to the deal,” Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said, flanked by others outside the Capitol. “We will do everything in our power to stop it.”
Ominously, the conservatives warned of potentially trying to oust McCarthy over the compromise.
“There’s going to be a reckoning,” said Rep. Chip Roy of Texas.
Despite the late-night meeting at the Capitol, Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., said after the “healthy debate” she was still a no.
Liberal Democrats decried the new work requirements for older Americans, those 50-54, in the food aid program. And some Democratic lawmakers were leading an effort against a surprise provision to greenlight a controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline natural gas project through Appalachia.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she appreciated that Biden was able to minimize the “extreme demands” Republicans made on spending, but she raised serious concerns about the food stamps and other environmental policy changes.
She also had this warning for McCarthy: “He got us here and it’s on him to deliver the votes."
Overall, the package is a tradeoff that would impose some federal spending reductions for the next two years along with a suspension of the debt limit into January 2025, pushing the volatile political issue past the next presidential election. Raising the debt limit, now $31.4 trillion, would allow Treasury to continue borrowing to pay the nation’s already incurred bills.
All told, it would hold spending essentially flat for the coming year, while allowing increases for military and veterans accounts. It would cap growth at 1% for 2025.
Policy issues were raising the most objections.
Questions were also being raised about the unexpected provision that essentially would give congressional approval to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural gas project important to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that many Democrats and others oppose as unhelpful in fighting climate change.
The top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, said including the pipeline provision was “disturbing and profoundly disappointing.”
But Manchin on Tuesday touted the pipeline project as something “we know we need.”
The House aims to vote Wednesday and send the bill to the Senate, where Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Republican leader McConnell are working for passage by week's end.
Schumer called the bill a “sensible compromise.” McConnell said McCarthy “deserves our thanks.”
Senators, who have remained largely on the sidelines during much of the negotiations between the president and the House speaker, began inserting themselves more forcefully into the debate.
Some senators are insisting on amendments to reshape the package from both the left and right flanks. That could require time-consuming debates that delay final approval of the deal.
For one, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia planned to file an amendment to remove the pipeline provision.
But making any changes to the package at this stage seemed unlikely with so little time to spare. Congress and the White House are racing to meet the Monday deadline now less than a week away. That's when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the U.S. would run short of cash and face an unprecedented debt default without action.
A default would almost certainly harm the U.S. economy and spill around the globe, as the world's reliance on the stability of the American dollar and the country's leadership fell into question.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani, Seung Min Kim, Farnoush Amiri, Darlene Superville and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.