Intensifying debt talks threaten rare GOP unity

House Republicans took a hard line going into high-stakes debt negotiations with President Joe Biden. Their Senate counterparts are now gently reminding them to show some flexibility.

As Biden and congressional leaders prepare for a Tuesday meeting aimed at bridging the House GOP’s conservative offer in debt-limit talks and Democrats’ insistence on a clean hike, Senate Republicans are watching Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s conference closely. After sticking their necks out for the California Republican, they’re aware of how tough it is to imagine an agreement that can pass the Democratic Senate and also keep the party’s conservatives on board.

Senate Republican leaders are ecstatic that McCarthy’s been able to both pass a bill and enter into negotiations with the president that Democrats sought to avoid. But at some point, the intraparty honeymoon will end. And while Republican senators are still refusing to undercut McCarthy and pursue their own deal, they’re still wary of the potential for GOP unity to fracture.

“I give them a lot of credit for putting the ball in Biden’s court. But the next step is: Will they support the compromise?” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The Senate will support whatever McCarthy and Biden will agree to. We’ll just back up the House.”

That leaves a lingering question in the Republican Party: What will the congressional GOP accept without revolting against its leaders? It’s all the more salient as some House conservatives talk about their opening bid as the floor — not the ceiling.

During bipartisan negotiations on the debt ceiling, there’s talk of a parallel budget deal that might set spending levels for several years, loosen energy permitting regulations, enact expanded work requirements for some aid programs and snatch back unused Covid aid. That’s a far cry from where House Republicans started last month, with a bill repealing Democratic initiatives and enacting blunt spending cuts.

“We already passed the negotiated bill to raise the debt limit. The only question now is what should be added to it, and the consensus seems to be … the border security bill,” added Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), speaking for many on the right who want to see their party gain ground rather than lose it in any final accord.

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said that the House bill is the GOP’s “final offer” and that some Republicans want to add more spending cuts “every day that goes by without an agreement by the Biden administration.”

Talk like that puts pressure on Senate Republicans who have stuck with McCarthy for months, from his first attempts to force Biden to the table to his courtship of conservatives as he assembled a bill filled with party priorities. If Biden cuts a budget deal intended to get a majority of the Republican-controlled House and a supermajority in the Democratic-run Senate, it’s almost certainly going to be one that alienates a significant wing of the congressional GOP.

Asked on Monday if he’s concerned about losing conservative support as he negotiates with Democrats, McCarthy replied: “No, I’m really concerned the Senate hasn’t passed anything. I’m really concerned that the president waited 100 days to talk to us.”

Just how many votes the party loses in the House and Senate on a final debt measure could have big ramifications for both McCarthy and McConnell. But House rules mean that only McCarthy, not McConnell, could face a real threat to his job as leader. It takes just one member to trigger a referendum on his leadership.

“A lot of that will depend not just on what [McCarthy] comes away with, but how he can work with” conservatives to get sufficient GOP support for a deal, said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who served with McCarthy in the House.

“We don’t want to default. At some point, we’re going to have to find a way through this,” she added. “And it really hinges on the Republicans on the House side pulling together as much as they can.”

As McCarthy effectively speaks for his entire party, meanwhile, the clock is running down. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned Congress again on Monday that the nation could breach its debt ceiling in barely more than two weeks. Despite staff-level talks floating some possible proposals, there’s been little concrete progress and McCarthy himself fumed Monday that he sees barely any movement behind the scenes.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, the No. 4 GOP leader, said Biden and McCarthy need to strike a deal “sooner rather than later. People are worried.”

“It’s always going to be: What’s the art of the doable? I think they have a good starting point, the question is what can we get bipartisan agreement on?” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said. “There is a good list of things to work through. They’ve got to start closing it out.”

Several Senate Republicans said McCarthy’s blessing would be good enough for them — they know what kind of internal pressure he is under to cut a deal that preserves his fragile four-vote majority. House conservatives have their own ideas.

As Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) put it: “The House passed a bill, the Senate has not. Why would we negotiate with ourselves?”

The House’s bill is the ceiling for conservative priorities on a debt deal, and Senate Republicans are hoping their lower chamber colleagues will show some flexibility.  

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