Taking Stock

Some good questions if not necessarily clear answers as the budget deal goes to a vote.
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 11: U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) looks on at a news conference after the House passed H.R.2 - the Secure the Border Act of 2023 at the Capitol, May 11, 2023 in Washington, DC. The Rep... WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 11: U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) looks on at a news conference after the House passed H.R.2 - the Secure the Border Act of 2023 at the Capitol, May 11, 2023 in Washington, DC. The Republican-led bill increases spending for security at the southern border through the hiring of additional Border Patrol agents, upgrading existing technology and resuming construction of the southern border wall. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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We now know the basics of the deal between Biden and McCarthy and a vote is set.

Let’s take stock of where we are.

First, just to catch us up on earlier posts, the deal is broadly what was leaked at the end of last week. It’s a much better deal for White House than I think almost anyone expected. It’s roughly what you would have expected if the two sides had engaged in a normal budget negotiation this fall.

Here are a few points to consider.

The Tipping Point: In negotiating this deal, McCarthy accepted he’d lose the bulk of the House Freedom Caucus. Those votes would need to be made up by Democrats whose support Biden likely assured him of. But there’s a tipping point somewhere past losing 50 Republicans votes where it could all fall apart for McCarthy. I don’t know how far past 50 it is but it’s before you get to 100 Republican “no” votes.

One problem is that the more GOP votes he loses, the more Democratic votes are needed. But that’s not the biggest problem. The problem is that once a substantial block of Republicans vote against the deal, the dangers of voting for it start going up quickly. If almost half the Republicans vote against it, they’re going to be going on Fox, Newsmax, Ben Shapiro’s podcast and a bunch of other places making this bill into a RINO Bill of Rights. At some point there’s a rush for the exits where no one wants to get left holding the bag for a demonized compromise.

I’m not saying this is going to happen. I don’t think it will happen. I’m trying to give you a sense of the risks involved for him if the number of “nos” rises to a certain level. One big advantage McCarthy has is two friends: Jim Jordan and Marjorie Greene. Both have put themselves squarely on Team Kevin. They both carry immense credibility on Tea Party/MAGA orthodoxy. Jordan has expressly voiced his support. I haven’t seen a specific quote but it seems very likely Greene will too. I’m sure McCarthy is telling waverers that if they get crap for this vote Jordan or Greene will come to their districts and say they’re awesome.

What Does This Guy Know?: One big mystery here is why McCarthy is doing this and why he seems so confident he’s going to be speaker after this bill passes. We know that McCarthy runs the House at the sufferance of the Freedom Caucus. He had to agree to rules which let any one of them call for a revote on his speakership any time they want. Just a handful of them can end his speakership by withholding support on that vote. Here they took the debt ceiling hostage and didn’t get anything beyond what they would have gotten in a normal budget negotiation. And they agreed to tie their hands when that negotiation comes up in the fall. So they got jack. The House GOP extremists should be pissed and ready end McCarthy’s speakership. But he doesn’t seem very worried about that.

One obvious possibility is that he is toast and he’s just putting on a brave face. He wants to pass his deal and he’ll deal with the next hurdle when it arrives.

Another possibility is the nature of the Republican extremists themselves. They don’t really care much about policy. They’re into performative dominance. Like Trump they may prefer whining about McCarthy’s purported betrayal more than actually trying to throw the House into upheaval by overthrowing him. It’s always important to remember that there’s really no other plausible candidate or probably even anyone who wants it.

Yet another possibility which isn’t inconsistent with the first two is that McCarthy is trying to isolate and defang the hardcore couple dozen freaks who make up the rightward flank of the caucus. He can probably make an argument to many of his caucus that even if the deal kinda sucks it’s “back the deal or be ruled by Matt Gaetz forever.” If they aren’t willing to overthrow him suddenly their bluff is called.

Again, I don’t know the answer on this one. But it’s one of the right questions to ask. McCarthy got a very thin deal at best. Biden basically stood them down. Yet he seems pretty confident that he’s going to get his deal passed and not face an immediate rebellion over it. What does he know that we don’t?

Is It Really a Good Deal?: This morning I read David Dayen’s write up on the deal in his “X Date” newsletter at the Prospect. He starts by saying this: “The second that Joe Biden agreed to negotiate with House Republicans on the debt ceiling, the results were going to be bad.” But then he says that harm was “kept to a minimum in the final agreement.”

In other words — and here I paraphrase this piece and the rest of what David’s written over the last 72 hours — Biden shouldn’t have agreed to negotiate. But given that he did agree to do so, this as basically the least bad deal he could have ended up with. Or the best deal he could have ended up with, depending on how you want to phrase.

Needless to say, I was emphatically against negotiating at all. So I hardly disagree with a portion of this argument. I stand by everything I’ve written about debt-ceiling hostage taking over the last six months and really over the last dozen years. David’s argument is that this is a pretty good deal or the least bad deal, once you treat it as a given that Biden agreed to negotiate. Point being, don’t agree to negotiate!

But there’s critical element of context David leaves out. Something like this set of concessions was more or less baked in the moment Republicans won control of the House. We will have to live with the consequences of having negotiated again over the debt ceiling which is that this hostage remains available for taking in the future. (You can’t safely or sanely run a country on the basis of parliamentary terrorism.) But there was always going to be a budget negotiation this fall that shifted fiscal policy to the right. Again, baked in as soon as Republicans won the House.

That’s why to me this is a very big win both in policy and political terms. In fact, such a big win that I’m still not totally clear how it came about. Once Biden started negotiating and appeared to rule out extraordinary measures, I was sure he was going to get taken to the cleaners. Somehow he didn’t. Score another one for Dark Brandon.

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