How a Debt Ceiling Deal Under a Weak House Speaker Breeds Chaos

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Even the members of the House Rules Committee couldn’t help but comment darkly about the unusually cramped hearing room and groan about the political performance art unfolding around a last-minute compromise designed to sidestep a seismic economic tremor.

“Hillary Clinton says it takes a village. I say it takes a bigger room,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee that was working on the first procedural step to help Washington dodge a debt default. “I don’t know if we can get more people in this room.”

A short time later on Tuesday, Rep. Thomas Massie, a hard-right Republican who had teased he might tank the debt ceiling deal struck between Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Democratic President Joe Biden nodded to the self-made drama in the room. “I’m reluctant to disclose how I might vote on this rule because then all the cameras leave,” said Massie, who coyly added that he needed to read the actual rule before he could commit. (Yes, the committee hearing began without a finalized draft, any printed copies of it, or even the actual cost projections.)

Ultimately, the Kentucky Republican voted just before 9 p.m. in support of the deal, sparing McCarthy a defeat on an early procedural vote. Republicans could afford to lose only two votes on the Rules Committee, and Massie stood to have been the third. “With that, the cameras are dismissed,” he said ahead of the roll call vote.

Welcome to yet another crisis week in Washington, a city where responsible governance seldom draws the same level of rewards as chaos and cliffhangers. It’s why you could hear meaningful exhaustion among Republicans and Democrats who have been through such standoffs before, and are bracing for more of them under what may be the weakest House Speaker in generations.

“Today’s bill is a product of compromise and reflects the realities of the divided government,” said Republican Rep. Tom Cole, the typically staid chairman of the Rules Committee. “We shouldn’t allow that to overshadow what this bill accomplishes. As I’ve often said, in a true negotiation, you always get less than you want and give up more than you’d like.”

Or, as Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Pennsylvania Democrat, sniped: “This isn’t legislation. This is hostage taking.”

It may be a hallmark for the balance of the current Congress, with McCarthy a prisoner of his own making. His first test was the Rules Committee, the unassumingly powerful panel that determines the process for most bills of any significance once they get to the House floor. Typically stacked with allies of the Speaker’s team, McCarthy from the start surrendered spots to zealots from his own party who have shown little regard for norms and a penchant for shattering them. Traditionally, the members of the minority party never vote to send legislation to the floor, meaning it comes down to selling the majority, regardless of party.

The threatened GOP mutiny on Rules was as predictable as it was maddening. And Tuesday’s standoff is far from the last one. This deal hammered out between McCarthy and President Biden was never going to clear the House with a 435-to-0 margin, but the close nature of it has both parties worried. Hence, the series of votes set for Wednesday on final passage isn’t slated to begin until after 8 p.m. so McCarthy and other leaders have the full day for more horsetrading. The incentives to turn routine governance into gamesmanship remain just as strong as ever. There’s few easier ways for a lawmaker to get plum bookings on conservative media than to pose a threat to McCarthy, and those spots convert to campaign cash quickly.

The current clash has been months in the making. When McCarthy was hobbling toward the speakership, he made a number of concessions—both formal and off-the-books—to his conservative flank to get them on board. It eventually worked on the 15th round of balloting, but McCarthy is now widely perceived as the weakest incoming Speaker in recent history. Any one of his crew can call a snap election, and the threat has never been more pronounced than amid these debt-ceiling talks. Factually, McCarthy enjoys the narrowest majority for a newbie Speaker since 1931; he won the prize but perhaps traded away every tool he had to safeguard against the rowdy right wing of his caucus.

Now, facing a June 5 hard deadline for the United States to allow itself to borrow more cash to pay the bills already due, McCarthy is trying to shepherd what should be a routine vote to success. He’s doing so with almost zero margin of error and at the mercy of Democrats who can spare him a crushing defeat.

In chasing his dream of the speakership, McCarthy conceded to conservative hardliners’ demands, including a handshake agreement brokered behind closed doors that gave them effective veto power over what their colleagues could vote on during open session by turning the Rules Committee into a meaningful check on the floor. It was, from the start, a swampy start to a House majority that publicly declared their new governing rules as rooted in transparency.

Rep. Chip Roy, a Freedom Caucus member from Texas who clawed a seat on the Rules Committee after voting against McCarthy on 11 ballots, has for months said he had secured an off-the-books agreement that the Speaker needed all nine Republicans on the Rules Committee to back legislation. Roy spent most of Tuesday explaining his contempt for the compromise product, which takes the debt limit off the table until after the 2024 election. “This does not represent any material change,” Roy said as the Rules hearing hit the three-hour mark.

Roy and Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina had said they oppose the deal, which would suggest the negotiated agreement between McCarthy and Biden should be D.O.A. if—and it’s a big if—the Freedom Caucus fully understood then and is honestly communicating now what McCarthy had given in concession. It also assumes any of their fellow Freedom Caucus shared their sense of betrayal, and what they might demand as penance.

“We should have walked away,” Norman said from the dais in that packed room Tuesday night. “Granted, it’s a small majority. But it’s a majority. We can do it.” But elsewhere on Capitol Hill, others tried to dodge questions about McCarthy’s future in the role.

And in that condition, there are plenty of risks for McCarthy and the legitimacy of his clutch on the gavel. Should he come to rely on Democratic support on the upcoming vote, the health of his speakership suddenly looks like it’s catching a cold or worse. Even before the Rules Committee gaveled in, #MotionToVacate McCarthy was trending on Twitter, a reminder that a single Republican member can bring to the floor a vote to remove the Speaker.

McCarthy understands the stakes. He spent the holiday weekend at the Capitol wrangling votes and on the phone with the White House. Administration aides took a similar weekend-and-the-desk approach, trying to whip votes for a deal that will ultimately need bipartisan support on the floor. The leadership team of the centrist New Democratic Coalition signaled its support, suggesting as many as 98 Democrats were in play. The Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus were polling their members, too.

Things look no more certain in the Senate, where delay tactics abound. Conservatives there are unhappy that the cuts didn’t go deeper, some like Sen. Rand Paul questioned if negotiators were ever serious about real limits on spending. (Progressives are also grumbling about elements of the deal such as the limits on food stamps, but some of that irritation faded late Tuesday when the official spending scorekeeper, the Congressional Budget Office, reported that the changes would yield a net 78,000 more participants in the nutrition program, catching even its biggest defenders by surprise.)

Still, the Senate has proven a more sober governing partner, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been consistent in saying there would be no default because of his team. With 60 Senators needed to advance the deal that chamber without tremendous headaches, Biden’s team was careful to negotiate to a place that could draw at least 10 Republican Senators, knowing House Republicans were ready to blame any failings on their brethren down the hall.

Even so, a tailspinning economy remains on the horizon if Washington can’t get its act together. The closed-door speakership deals back in January made the backroom deals this spring all the more tenuous, and McCarthy is just now starting to understand that winning the gavel may not ultimately have been worth the tradeoffs. Especially if a handful of rabbles inside his own caucus can imperil his biggest negotiated win so far—and the ecosystem around them rewards it.

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