McCarthy Tries To Muddy Waters Around Republican Plan For Taking Debt Ceiling Hostage

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 26: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) did some backpedaling Wednesday evening as his and his colleagues’ threats about the debt ceiling and cutting Medicare and Social Security have begun to draw attention.

“I’m kind of surprised because all I hear, really, mostly, is abortion and January 6, is what I’m hearing from the left almost exclusively, but today they’re up in arms about something you told Punchbowl regarding entitlement programs and the debt ceiling — that you would use debt ceiling negotiations to somehow rein in Social Security or Medicare?” lobs excessively amenable CNBC host Joe Kernen.

McCarthy told Punchbowl News earlier this week that he would not “predetermine” anything in terms of cuts to the major programs, and that he wouldn’t lift the debt ceiling without a “change” to the administration’s “current behavior.” 

“I never mentioned Social Security and Medicare,” McCarthy responded on CNBC, adding that Republicans want to “strengthen Social Security and Medicare.” 

“So the question was, would you just raise the debt ceiling without having a discussion — not about entitlements — but about our spending behavior right now,” he continued. “And my question would be, we have to change our behavior, we can’t continue down this path — I don’t think anybody would think they would just go about giving this administration a blank check. So yes, I know that the debt ceiling needs to be raised, but I also know I’m gonna strengthen Social Security and Medicare.”  

“I never brought them up,” he repeated. “That is where the Democrats continue to try to put something else out there.” 

In fact, to the chagrin of many Democratic supporters, it has decidedly not been the Democrats circulating the narrative that Republicans plan to hold the debt ceiling hostage to extract cuts to Medicare and Social Security. It’s McCarthy’s own party. 

House Republicans, many of whom are poised to control major committees if their party flips the lower chamber, were candid about their intentions in a recent Bloomberg Government article. And months before that, an influential group of House Republicans had already published a “blueprint” detailing their intention to raise the eligibility age for both programs, to make Medicare more means-tested and to redirect some taxes that fund Social Security to other, private alternatives. 

While both McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) insist that these changes are merely “strengthening” the programs and not cutting them, their policy prescriptions are in black and white. 

And it’s telling, even in this clean-up interview, that McCarthy does not back away from the debt ceiling threat, though he veils it in disingenuous claims of fiscal responsibility. 

Raising the debt ceiling is simply not giving the administration a “blank check” for future spending, as he describes it — it has nothing to do with government spending to come. It’s merely authorizing the Treasury to make good on spending Congress has already appropriated. It’s like paying a credit card bill at the end of the month; Republicans are threatening not to pay the bill, in the name of fiscal restraint. 

But since 2011, Republicans have found holding the debt ceiling hostage a useful tool to extort political concessions from Democratic presidents. Notably, they did not make cuts to these programs during the two years they had unified control under then-President Donald Trump, nor did they hesitate to suspend the debt ceiling multiple times under his tenure, despite the fact that they had just supercharged deficit spending with the 2017 tax cuts. 
While Republican calculations here are baldly political, the threat is real. If they did refuse to raise or suspend the debt ceiling, the United States would default on its debts, likely triggering a global financial crisis. As the party marches on towards the right — and if Democrats don’t act during the lame duck session to avert the threat — the hope that reason and actual responsibility will win out seems ever dimmer.

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