In a Capitol Hill auditorium last week, Republican and Democratic lawmakers gathered and listened to an official briefing on the federal budget. Then they spar verbally and then exchange ideas about it.
If that sounds like a run-of-the-mill congressional scene, it isn’t — in fact, most people in the room couldn’t remember anything like this happening in their entire congressional career.
“I’ve been here for ten years,” said Representative David Schweikert (R-AZ). “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before, where both sides listened and then both sides went to the mic.”
The presentation by the Congressional Budget Office was originally intended only for the Republican conference, but Chairman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) opened it to Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Democratic lawmakers. The two party leaders aren’t exactly friends, but they’ve taken steps so far to open lines of communication across the aisle.
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The briefing pleasantly surprised members of both sides. For example, Schweikert said some members “shot at each other,” but that he and another Democratic member made similar comments about health care spending to the public.
“You’ll only get that,” he said, “if Hakeem and McCarthy put us all in the same room.”
Beneath that burst of bonhomie, however, lies a deeper challenge. To address some of the most vital issues facing Congress this term — let alone deliver any legislative achievement for Republicans to get to grips with next year — McCarthy will need to strike bipartisan deals.
But there are plenty of Republicans who think “bipartisan deals” are just the sort of words that could cost Republicans the majority, while other GOP lawmakers think ideological purity at the expense of actual performance is a recipe for disaster.
“Nothing will be done unless there is a two-party solution,” said Representative Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), a leader of the GOP moderate bloc.
But ask a seasoned conservative like Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) or his constituents want him to work with Democrats, and you’ll get a quick answer.
“No,” Norman said. “We’re going in two different directions.”
Polling supports Norman’s claims. A January 2023 Pew Research survey found that only a third of GOP voters wanted congressional leaders to work with Democrats to get things done, even if it disappointed most of the party. Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent of Democrats said Biden should work with the GOP, even if it disappointed Biden supporters.
The problem for McCarthy is that he needs both groups of legislators, just for different reasons. The Republicans who won the majority by winning tough races in 2022, then supported McCarthy during his grueling Speaker race, see it as a top priority to pass bipartisan bills on the toughest issues.
Those who have withheld support from McCarthy — and been given the power to force a vote on his impeachment at any time — largely do not.
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Publicly at least, the Speaker himself has mapped out a middle ground. In December, after Republicans won the majority, McCarthy said he “can work with anyone,” but stressed that the GOP’s victories meant voters wanted “a check and balance” on Democratic rule.
So far, what has helped McCarthy deal with the dilemma is that, about two months into his tenure as speaker, he won his bipartisan victories not by working with the Democrats, but by forcefully arming them, much to his delight from the conservative base.
Last week, McCarthy celebrated congressional passage of a House GOP bill that repeals a number of criminal justice reforms in Washington, D.C.
Initially, Biden indicated he opposed the bill, and the vast majority of House Democrats voted against it. Then Biden changed his tune and said he wouldn’t veto it — opening the floodgates last week for 36 Senate Democrats and all Republicans to vote for it.
McCarthy hosted an unusually lavish signing ceremony before sending the resolution to the president’s office. Republicans have repeatedly and gleefully tweaked the House Democrats who held the sack after voting against repeal of the crime bill. The GOP campaign arm has been running attack ads against vulnerable Democrats who voted that way, continuing their midterm effort to make crime a problem area for Democrats.
But McCarthy’s allies don’t think his bipartisan bonafides stop there. They point to emerging policies — bills passing through committees — as examples that both sides can work together under McCarthy’s leadership.
Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), a college freshman who flipped a Democratic seat last year, said members “already collaborate on a number of bills in financial services and foreign affairs.”
“So I know I know the focus is to try and for everyone to try and hammer on the negative,” Lawler said. “But I think there are a lot of opportunities for people to work together.”
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Democratic leaders have expressed a willingness to work with Republicans on a number of fronts, from opposing China to passing the two-year Farm Bill and reworking the country’s surveillance programs. The two sides came together to pass major bills such as the $1 trillion infrastructure bill over the past two years.
“To my Republican friends,” Biden said in his State of the Union address last month, “if we could work together in the last Congress, there’s no reason we couldn’t work together in this new Congress.”
But no amount of free-running bipartisan exchange on Capitol Hill is likely to dislodge where both sides stand on the most pressing issue requiring bipartisan cooperation: expanding the federal government’s borrowing power, known as the debt ceiling. If you don’t do this by the time the debt ceiling is reached, which is expected to be in August, you risk an economically destructive sovereign debt default.
Republicans are threatening to vote against raising the debt ceiling — even if it represents spending in the past and not for the future — and are using the prospect of widespread economic disaster as leverage to force Democrats to agree to unspecified cuts.
Democrats, meanwhile, say they won’t accept the debt limit hostage and are aiming to goad Republicans into details of their cuts.
On this particular front, bipartisanship is not what the Republicans want unless it means the Democrats submit to the GOP’s demands. And the Democrats’ stance on the debt ceiling has helped McCarthy manage the two flanks of his conference — for now.
Republicans are united in attacking Biden’s negotiating stance, a task made easier with Biden’s release of his budget last Thursday. The $7 trillion proposal was treated more like a troll than an olive branch by Republicans.
“The White House and Senate must recognize that Washington is no longer run by one party,” Lawler said. “They have to negotiate with the House in good faith, and I think the president’s budget — which is a month late — is certainly not a good faith effort.”
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McCarthy has received praise from the various wings of his conference for his stance on the issue thus far. “The Speaker has done a good job,” said Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT). “It is my understanding that the Biden administration has not contacted him — again, it was a promise that they would work together.”
“I hope that attempt comes soon, because the clock is running,” said Zinke.
But McCarthy’s troubles are just beginning. Whether Republicans will pass their own budget is an open question, as is how on earth McCarthy could write a budget that satisfies all corners of his conference when there are so many conflicting goals. Republicans want a balanced budget in 10 years. They want one without cuts to the more than $800 billion Pentagon budget. And after being hit over the head for proposals aimed at senior citizens, they want one that doesn’t touch Medicare and Social Security.
And that’s just a message document. The budget looks more like a glorified press release on Capitol Hill than a binding spending plan. But adopting a blueprint – or not adopting it – could be the start of trouble for McCarthy. The reality is that McCarthy’s real test will begin when the Republicans have to agree on exactly what cuts they will demand from the Democrats.
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Internally, GOP lawmakers have circulated several proposals, but the main milestone was publicly brought down Friday by the House Freedom Caucus, the hard-right group most reluctant to support McCarthy.
The Freedom Caucus said their members would “consider” voting to lift the debt ceiling if Democrats agreed to reverse Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, revoke unused COVID relief funds, pass the Democrats’ big climate bill of to reverse last year and limit non-defense spending to 2022 levels for a decade. Basically, it’s a complete nonstarter for Democrats.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) said he was optimistic about the prospects for working with Republicans, but wondered what spending they might cut, as McCarthy has already ruled out touching Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense and veterans programs.
“That’s the only place where I’m not optimistic,” Beyer said.
Biden, meanwhile, has similar concerns about the Freedom Caucus proposal. In a brief response Friday morning, he slammed proposed cuts to discretionary spending, which he said did not match his “established values.”
As negotiations progress, it appears that at least one of McCarthy’s new ally, who also happens to be a bridge to the far right, is giving him room to work across the aisle.
Rep. Speaking on the steps of the Capitol on Thursday, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) made a sort of kumbaya remark about Democrats and Republicans working together on the debt limit and budget.
“I’m one of those people who gets really tired of both political parties and I keep saying this institution has to serve the American people, and to do that we have to talk to each other,” Greene said. said.
“So that’s the way it should be done.”
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