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BREAKING: Kevin McCarthy wins Speakership. Now it's up to Biden to neutralize the Freedom Caucus.
Kevin McCarthy prevailed on the 15th round of voting for Speaker early Saturday morning following a day of high drama. On the first vote of the day, 14 rebels defected to McCarthy, giving him serious momentum heading into tonight’s vote. But on the 14th round, he fell one vote short. Republicans moved to adjourn, and Democrats tried to stop them, but then Matt Gaetz, one of the few remaining holdouts, spoke to McCarthy and seemed to tell him they could get it done now. McCarthy went to the desk and changed his vote to oppose adjournment. Other Republicans did the same, so the House stayed in session.
But news outlets, seeing the adjournment vote hit the number needed to end the session, blasted out news alerts saying that McCarthy’s week had ended without a victory. McCarthy and his allies will no doubt enjoy that their victory will require a correction from NPR. When Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona changed his vote to present in the 15th round, he gave McCarthy the margin he needed. Gaetz and Boebert both remained as “present” votes.
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The price of the holdout’s support was a promise from McCarthy that he would not approve a clean debt ceiling increase – that was never something he was going to do anyway – and instead would only agree to do so if spending was put at 2022 levels.
Especially in an environment where we’ve seen 8% inflation, that’s a demand for a massive, massive cut. The last time Republicans won a debt-ceiling standoff Biden was vice president, and the Obama administration agreed to the so-called sequester. They also agreed to create the Biden Committee, which tried to land a Grand Bargain with then-Rep. Eric Cantor. A Grand Bargain was a Washington fever dream for years, and would include some combination of tax increases and cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other social spending, and the idea is that it will be massively unpopular but if the parties do it together then voters have nobody to take it out on. Setting aside the grotesquely anti-democratic sentiment behind it, it’s also not true. For Cantor’s effort, he was thrown out of Congress. The sequester slowed down the economic recovery from the financial crisis, and had its own political fallout. With a better economy, Democrats likely would have held the Senate in 2014 and as a result Merrick Garland would be sitting on the Supreme Court.
Biden’s administration has made a big deal about how its approach to economic policy marks the end of neoliberalism.That might be a bit over the top, but Biden’s approach has been a break from the consensus that reigned roughly from Reagan through Obama. But the big risk of a Biden administration is Biden himself. He spent 40 years advocating for cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and has generally believed that being a hawk on the debt and deficit is good politics. He’s been able to bury those instincts these past two years, and it has paid off politically.
But when he was asked in October if Democrats should use their majority to eliminate the debt limit when they had a chance, he said doing so would be “irresponsible.” With the Freedom Caucus threatening a global default, it’s deeply irresponsible not to have gotten rid of it. But now that Republicans have vowed a showdown over a global financial crisis, which’ll start hurting the economy long before it hits this summer, Biden does have a way out. Plenty of constitutional experts will tell you that the debt limit is simply unconstitutional. Just ignore it. There are a ton of different ways the Treasury can keep paying its bills, which we’ll get into over the next few weeks and months.
That would leave the Freedom Caucus playing the role of that hapless guy in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” who grabbed for the wrong golden goblet.