McCarthy Proves What He’s Made Of with Gritty Budget Win
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) hasn’t had an easy path. After painstakingly working through conservatives’ gripes with House leadership this January, he finally squeaked out the votes he needed to assume the third most powerful job in Washington. But even after that chaos died down, questions loomed. Was he cut out to be speaker? Would he bring the fractious, competing corners of the GOP together? In a staring contest with Democrats, could he win? The answer, Americans learned from a hard-won victory on the budget bill, is a resounding yes.
With just two votes to spare, McCarthy accomplished something that seemed improbable even 48 hours ago: he held his fragile coalition together and passed a bill that all but forces Democrats to the negotiating table. Under the House proposal, America would not default on its loans. But there were strings attached. In exchange for raising the debt ceiling and protecting the country’s credit line, conservatives are demanding a massive overhaul of spending and deep cuts to bloated programs.
For starters, Republicans would set a $1.47 trillion limit on discretionary spending — with a 1% increase built in for each year. In a blow to the Democratic messaging machine, even the AP admits that the legislation poses no threat to Social Security and Medicare, which has been Joe Biden’s favorite scare tactic about the bill. To the cheers of most conservatives, the proposal also scoops up all of the unused COVID relief money from the series of bills passed between 2020-2022. Another way the GOP carved out savings was to roll back the $71 billion boost in IRS funding.
According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), all of this would make a huge difference in the country’s bleak financial picture, slashing the deficit by a whopping $4.8 trillion in a 10-year span.
Fueled by coffee and power naps, Republicans worked past 4 a.m. Wednesday to hammer out the deal. That all-nighter paid off. The bill eked through by a 217-215 margin that afternoon, putting Republicans in an unusual place — the driver’s seat.
In a triumphant press conference after the vote, McCarthy threw down the gauntlet. “We have lifted the debt ceiling, so nobody could worry about whether the debt ceiling is going to get lifted. We did it. The Democrats have not. [If] the president wants to make sure the debt ceiling is going to be lifted, sign this bill.”
Although Rules Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) made it clear that it’s “not the end of the road,” he insisted that “it’s a great personal and political victory for the speaker who got it done. He got a lot of people to vote for a debt ceiling increase who’ve never done that before.”
House Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry (R-Pa.) was equally complimentary, telling Family Research Council President Tony Perkins on “Washington Watch” that the vote was “quite honestly, another historic moment in modern times here in Congress.” “For most people, this is just another day in the saga of Washington. But … as far as I know in modern times, this has never happened before.” And one of the reasons it was possible, he said, is because conservatives put specific conditions on the speaker in January — things like single-subject bills. More debate. Free-flowing amendments. In other words, Congress is back to operating how the Founders intended, not as a graveyard of ideas where decisions were predetermined by a powerful few.
Even if you go back to the 2011 days of Cut, Cap, and Balance, Republicans never insisted on “real cuts in that first year.” But this isn’t your 2011 GOP. And while the prevailing wisdom in Washington may be that the House has to cave to Joe Biden and Senate Democrats without demanding concessions like meaningful spending reform, Perry insists, “We’re not going to cave.”
“We have a narrow majority,” he conceded, but “we have worked for months — right up until about 4:00 in the morning last night to get this to where we can pass it. And, it is the beginning of the conversation, but what it does is … it shows [Biden] that we can pass something and he has no choice except to negotiate.”
For Republicans, who only control one part of the legislature, this is a “landmark occasion,” Perry says. “We’re supposed to be in a completely defensive posture. [But] we are on offense. And I will also take some pride in this: 90% of this bill has been written by the House Freedom Caucus — and we are driving and pulling our entire conferences … to the Right, to the side of principles that [say] we cannot keep spending and bankrupting our country.”
In a movement that’s watched Republicans snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Wednesday’s developments were groundbreaking. “I’ve watched this process for 20 years,” Perkins said. “I’ve even watched the Republicans when they were in the majority and they had the numbers. … But the reality is, even when Republicans had a large margin to work with, they never ever drove a stake in the ground and stood on principle. That is a sea change here in Washington, D.C.”
And McCarthy’s week-long speaker drama is a big reason why. Even then, FRC believed Republicans — and the speaker in particular — would emerge stronger from that emotional debate. It was there that the California leader proved he was willing to listen, to compromise, and to pursue the tough changes voters demanded. Now, Perkins insisted, we’ve had time to see that McCarthy was sincere. “We’ve seen a succession of decisions that the speaker has made. He’s stuck to his word. … And Republicans have [also] kept their word and done exactly what they said they were going to do when they elected this speaker.” So Democrats need to realize, he warned, “you guys aren’t going to cave.”
Already, that message seems to be sinking in. Far-left senators like Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are calling on Biden to negotiate — and negotiate now. Moderate Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) agreed, pointing out, McCarthy’s bill is the “only bill actually moving through Congress that would prevent default.”
As NRO’s Noah Rothman explains, “The White House and Senate Democrats have so far operated on the assumption that Republicans were too disunited to be worth negotiating with.” Now, the script has flipped. “And with the Republican position strengthening and Democrats’ eroding, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before the White House consents to good-faith negotiations with their Republican counterparts. The sooner, the better.”
In the meantime, Perry has a message for those “weak-kneed senators over there that always work with the Democrats: … You need to stick with your Republican colleagues [and] do the work of the American people. … There’s a fighting spirit in this House of Representatives,” he insisted, “but … we do expect our senators to stand up and stand for us.”
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.