House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday cleared his first major political test since winning the post in January, securing just enough votes to approve a Republican bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling in exchange for deep cuts in government spending.
The partisan measure, which House Republicans passed 217 to 215 along party lines, escalates a looming high-stakes fiscal showdown with the White House with as few as six weeks remaining before the government could default. The legislation would cut federal spending by nearly 14% over a decade by undoing several major elements of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, including his clean energy tax credits and student loan cancellation plan. It would also impose stricter work requirements for federal nutrition and health programs starting next year.
The bill now heads to the Democratic-led Senate, where it is widely viewed as dead-on-arrival. But its passage in the House marks a significant milestone for McCarthy, the embattled California Republican whose reputation and authority were on the line if he couldn’t keep his narrow majority. McCarthy and GOP leadership viewed the bill as a necessary step to force Biden to negotiate over the terms of a debt ceiling increase, even though the President has vowed to veto their bill.
“This bill is to get us to the negotiating table,” McCarthy told reporters Tuesday night. “It’s not the final provisions.”
Still, the path to passage was fraught with political conflict, requiring an intense round of overnight negotiations among party leaders and a last-minute scramble by McCarthy to win over a handful of holdouts who threatened to tank the bill. Several House Republicans raised concerns over the bill’s energy and environmental provisions, while others felt the work requirements being imposed on federal social programs were too weak.
Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican from South Carolina, told TIME earlier this week that she would vote “no” on the bill because the green energy tax credit rollbacks would make it more expensive to build solar and wind power in her state. But her position changed this afternoon following a meeting with McCarthy, where she used her holdout status as leverage to push for an amendment to require a balanced budget and three unrelated policy priorities, which she summarized as: “Weed, women and guns.”
“I feel heard by the Speaker, and I will support the debt-ceiling vote today because he listened to my concerns, he’s willing to work with us on our concerns about balancing the budget, and that was meaningful, it was productive, and I believe it’s going to be fruitful in the near future,” Mace said as she left a meeting with McCarthy in the Speaker’s office.
With a slim margin for error, McCarthy made a litany of changes to the bill late last night to address concerns from holdout Republicans, agreeing to drop a provision that would repeal climate and energy tax credits for ethanol to address complaints from a bloc of Midwestern Republicans. He also agreed to tweaking a provision to impose work requirements sooner on low-income Americans enrolled in programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, a move intended to satisfy far-right lawmakers who insisted on tougher terms for receiving public benefits.
McCarthy continued his pleas with holdouts within his caucus on Wednesday morning in a private meeting held in the basement of the Capitol, where he urged members to support the bill and provide him with a strong position to compel Biden to come to the negotiating table.
All of the Midwestern Republicans who originally opposed the bill over the ethanol tax credits voted yes on Wednesday, following the overnight changes. The deciding vote came down to Rep. George Santos, a freshman Republican from New York who has gained national notoriety for having fabricated much of his biography. Santos, who faced calls to resign almost immediately after being sworn in, was the last lawmaker to cast a vote on Wednesday. He had said last week that he was a “hard no,” but changed his stance after reviewing McCarthy’s revisions.
“Our goal still must not be limited to simply avoiding a clean debt limit increase,” Rep. Kevin Hern wrote in a letter to the Republican Study Committee, which he chairs, after the vote. “Nor can we be happy with just a few token reforms… I will use every tool in my arsenal to defend every provision of this package.”
Still, not all House Republicans were swayed by McCarthy’s revised bill. Four right-wing Republicans voted against the legislation, the most McCarthy could afford to lose and still pass the legislation. The Republican holdouts were Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Ken Buck of Colorado, and Tim Burchett of Tennessee (Biggs and Gaetz were part of the group that battled McCarthy for 15 rounds of voting during his grueling, televised four-day spectacle for the Speaker’s gavel in January).
The U.S. officially hit the debt ceiling last month, and as a result could face the prospect of default as soon as June if lawmakers and the White House do not strike a deal to raise the federal borrowing limit within the next two months. As the deadline looms, Biden has argued that the debt ceiling should be raised without conditions given the immense risks a default would present to the U.S. economy. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, on Wednesday blamed the GOP for “hostage taking” and said that House Republicans brought the country “dangerously close to defaulting.”
But with no bipartisan resolution in sight, or even a meeting between Biden and McCarthy on the horizon, it remains unclear.
“The sad part here is, now the Democrats need to do their job,” McCarthy said immediately after the vote. “The president can no longer ignore [it] by not negotiating.”