Do you hear that? It’s the sound of House Republicans trying to get President Biden to pay attention to their threats to throw the country into default and engage in a new round of debt-ceiling hostage taking.
It’s a dramatically different reality than the one we had the last time there was a Democratic President in the Oval Office.
The White House argues — quite reasonably — that the time to argue over what the government spends is when you pass a bill about what the government spends (i.e., a budget), not when the government has to raise money to pay for spending the Congress has already mandated by law. Republicans haven’t even come up with a budget yet. So they’re demanding negotiations over the debt ceiling, which is wrong in itself. But they’re not willing to say what their demands are. That is a point we’ll return to in a moment.
This morning, Speaker Kevin McCarthy went on Twitter to castigate the President for his “extreme position” on the debt ceiling, which is that he won’t negotiate over the debt ceiling. It’s a remarkable turnabout. Republicans took the hostage and now they’re waiting for the SWAT team and negotiators to show up. But they’re nowhere to be seen. And now they’re saying to themselves, what do we do now? It’s the equivalent of the hostage takers ringing up the cops and telling them to please hurry up.
It’s remarkable chutzpah: the hostage takers have rebranded themselves The Committee for Hostage Safety and they’re lashing out at the people they’re trying to extort.
But note that there’s an additional dimension of this going on inside the House GOP. The House Freedom Caucus is telling everyone who will listen that Kevin McCarthy is a chump who doesn’t control anything. If you want to resolve the crisis you need to talk to the people in charge — not the butler or the assistant — which is them, the House Freedom Cacuus.
Last week the House Freedom Caucus held a press conference along with Senate fellow travelers Mike Lee and Rick Scott in which they demanded that President Biden come to the next meeting of the House Freedom Caucus, last Wednesday night, and start negotiating. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who spoke for the group, said the Freedom Caucus was “the only caucus who has released a plan to address this situation.” True enough. They’re making the same argument as the White House, albeit with a different aim. How are you going to negotiate with McCarthy when he hasn’t even decided on his negotiating position?
But they’re making a more pointed argument too: We run the House, not Kevin McCarthy. So you need to negotiate with the people who are actually in charge. “We have a plan, we’re ready to go right now,” said caucus chair Scott Perry. “I’d remind Mr. Biden that America saw what the House Freedom Caucus is made of in January,” Boebert said. “Lies don’t move us. Media coverage doesn’t move us. Attack ads don’t move us. Policy moves us.”
As always, dignity loss, the capacity to absorb humiliation, is Kevin McCarthy’s super power.
So what’s going on here? The Freedom Caucus budget blueprint is toxic. They don’t care because they’re almost all from safe districts. (Ironically, Boebert is one of the very few who is not.) But McCarthy needs to think about the whole caucus, the next election and the presidential election. McCarthy’s aim is to pressure Biden into negotiations without saying what it is he, McCarthy, actually wants. If McCarthy can get Biden into a negotiation, they’re probably going to come out of it with a bunch of cuts most voters don’t like. But it’s okay because Biden owns them just as much as McCarthy.
That’s the gambit. So far it’s not working. But the Freedom Caucus doesn’t care about McCarthy. They are happy to let this dignity zombie bleed out for the hundredth time so they can say that they run the House. And they do.