Opinion | Republicans Can’t Agree on a Path Out of Their Own Debt Crisis – The New York Times

Opinion | Republicans Can’t Agree on a Path Out of Their Own Debt Crisis – The New York Times

President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy sit at a table behind a bouquet of white flowers.static01.nyt.com/images/2023/03/22/multimedia/22dc-BIDEN-MCCARTHY-inyt-gcpb/22dc-BIDEN-MCCARTHY-inyt-gcpb-jumbo.jpg?quality=75&auto=webp 1024w, static01.nyt.com/images/2023/03/22/multimedia/22dc-BIDEN-MCCARTHY-inyt-gcpb/22dc-BIDEN-MCCARTHY-inyt-gcpb-superJumbo.jpg?quality=75&auto=webp 2048w” sizes=”((min-width: 600px) and (max-width: 1004px)) 84vw, (min-width: 1005px) 80vw, 100vw” decoding=”async” width=”600″ height=”400″ style=”max-width: 100%; margin: 0.5em auto; display: block; height: auto;”>
President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in March.Al Drago for The New York Times

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It’s been obvious for months that Republicans in the House of Representatives intend to lead the country toward a calamitous debt ceiling crisis in order to get their way on spending. Only in the last few weeks, however, has it become clear just how truly chaotic that process will be.

Republicans, it turns out, don’t even know what they want in exchange for dropping their threat to cause a default, beyond a fuzzy shared goal of cutting federal spending. Even if President Biden and the Democrats were inclined to negotiate with them to lift the debt ceiling — which would be a serious mistake — it’s not clear who their negotiating partners would be. The House has become so factionalized that its leaders cannot speak in one voice, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy may not be able to assemble a majority to lift the debt ceiling at all.

“I don’t see how we get there,” said Patrick McHenry, a Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who is close to Mr. McCarthy. “And this is a marked change from where I’ve been. I don’t even see a path.”

The ceiling is a useless legislative construct that lets lawmakers refuse to borrow money to pay for the deficit spending they already approved. If Congress doesn’t raise it, the government goes into default and can’t make payments on its obligations, including interest on Treasury bonds, Social Security payments and other essential spending, which would quickly crash the U.S. economy. It generally comes up as an issue only when Republicans control at least one house of Congress while a Democrat is in the White House; Republicans are not known to express concern about deficits caused when a president of their own party cuts taxes for the rich.

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When the G.O.P. took control of the House in January, Mr. McCarthy had to meet the demands of a handful of far-right members to get their votes to become speaker. One of his concessions was a promise not to raise the debt ceiling unless there was an agreement to balance the budget within 10 years by cutting the heart out of the federal government.

That extreme demand was so unrealistic that it is no longer being seriously discussed by House officials. Achieving balance that quickly without raising taxes would mean that all spending, including for defense, veterans, Social Security and Medicare, would have to be cut by 26 percent, as even the spending hawks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget noted earlier this year. Exempting those four categories would require cutting everything else by 85 percent. Both levels are unimaginable.

But what will replace that ultimatum? So far, there has been a cacophony of proposals from the so-called five families representing different gradations of small government ideology in the House Republican conference, all vague and lacking details of what members really want to cut. The Republican Study Committee, a prominent group of House conservatives, issued a “playbook” full of tired ideas like cutting waste, fraud and abuse and rolling back recent spending approved by Democrats. The head of the slightly more centrist Main Street Caucus, Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, has talked about going back to spending levels from two years ago, without saying which federal programs will be forced to ignore record-setting inflation.

The worst, inevitably, was from the MAGA faction known as the House Freedom Caucus, which wants to go back to either 2019 or 2022 spending levels (it’s not clear which), allow 1 percent growth each year and cut $3 trillion from what it calls “the wasteful, woke and weaponized federal bureaucracy.” The proposal manages to invoke all the favorite phrases from the Trump era without telling people that it will mean drastic reductions to homeland security, defense, disaster response, law enforcement and environmental cleanup, among other vital categories.

This is the endless failure of the modern Republican Party. Cutting spending as a concept might sound attractive to many voters until you explain what you’re actually cutting and what effect it would have. They cut taxes so they can then rail about the resulting deficits, but don’t want to discuss how many veterans won’t get care or whose damaged homes won’t get rebuilt or which dangerous products won’t get recalled. That’s why there is still no official budget statement from the House G.O.P., because its different factions can’t agree on how open they should be about the results. The details of austerity are unpopular, and it’s easier to just issue fiery news releases.

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In early March, the Biden administration issued a 2024 budget that forthrightly declared how it planned to reduce the deficit: With $5 trillion in tax increases on the rich and on large corporations over the next decade. It would spend more money on health care for the poor and uninsured, child care, Pell grants and free community college, climate resilience, the military and alliances like NATO. The White House proposal hasn’t a chance, of course, as long as Republicans control the House, but at least it represented a clear statement of principles and priorities, unlike the mush trickling out of the G.O.P. caucus.

To mask his chamber’s dysfunction, Mr. McCarthy issued a letter on Tuesday that tried to put the blame on Mr. Biden. The speaker accused the president of being “completely missing in action” on debt ceiling negotiation and said he remained willing to talk about raising the ceiling in exchange for cuts like reducing “excessive” nondefense spending (no details) and strengthening work requirements for unspecified federal benefits. (He undoubtedly meant Medicaid and food stamps, but he didn’t choose to put that in writing.) He also put his party’s energy and border policies on the table, knowing he cannot achieve them through any tactic other than hostage taking.

But Mr. Biden says he won’t let the government and the economy be blackmailed, and he has adamantly rejected the demand that he discuss terms for raising the ceiling. He says it has to be raised cleanly, with no conditions, just as it was three times during the Trump administration. The last time a Democrat negotiated with Republicans over the ceiling was in 2011, when President Barack Obama capitulated and agreed to a deal that created the notorious “supercommittee” to agree on cuts and imposed a stark sequester of spending when the committee couldn’t agree. Almost everyone hated that deal, and Mr. Obama vowed never to negotiate again, an important principle adopted by his vice president.

That doesn’t mean Mr. Biden shouldn’t negotiate about the budget and spending, a separate process that is part of the normal give and take between the White House and Congress. But he can’t do that under a threat of economic catastrophe, and even Republicans are starting to wonder how they will avert it. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Rules Committee, said a few days ago that several House members will never vote for any debt ceiling increase, “even if we gave them everything they wanted.” Mr. McHenry said he had never been more pessimistic about reaching an agreement.

Democrats say privately that with the debt ceiling deadline probably arriving this summer, they are counting on mounting pressure from financial markets, already jittery from the recent banking crisis, as well as business lobbyists, to persuade enough Republicans to join Democrats in ending the threat at the last minute. Maybe, but with the radical mind-set that now pervades the House, it’s hard to count on that.

In the end, the best solution is to eliminate the debt ceiling charade once and for all. There are bills in Congress to do so, though few Republicans would support them. And there was a strong argument during the Obama years to test the constitutionality of the ceiling in court, since it appears to violate the 14th Amendment, a tactic still worth trying. Mr. Biden, however, has shown no interest in pursuing that path, and seems to be hoping that this year, Republicans will finally learn that the debt ceiling is not a tool for leverage, because the cost for using it is too high. The country can only brace itself and hope he’s right.

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