Speaker Kevin McCarthy got what he wanted out of Tuesday’s debt limit talks at the White House — the chance to go one-on-one against President Biden.
The speaker, who believes he has been treated dismissively by the White House and congressional Democrats, won an agreement that his representatives would now negotiate directly with Mr. Biden’s top lieutenants. The change minimized the role of the rest of the congressional leadership and put him and the president more directly in control of high-stakes discussions over averting a disastrous default.
Now Mr. McCarthy is playing at the highest level, like speakers of both parties before him.
“We finally have a formula that has proven to work in the past,” Mr. McCarthy said following the meeting.
The speaker’s success in wrangling himself a prime seat at the negotiating table is in some sense a reward for a risky strategy that has brought the United States within weeks of a potentially catastrophic default. Mr. McCarthy has refused to agree to raise the debt limit without conditions, thus holding a metaphorical gun to the head of the economy until Mr. Biden agrees to spending cuts.
After insisting for months that he would never do so, the president appears ready to discuss a potential ransom.
It is no secret on Capitol Hill that Mr. McCarthy and his fellow Republicans feel that the White House and congressional Democrats have consistently underestimated the speaker after his expectations for a much larger majority fell short and he had to fight through 15 ballots to win his job in January. Republicans believe that Democrats have not afforded Mr. McCarthy the same standing and respect as his predecessors John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan, who had stronger policy chops.
At a news conference last week, Mr. McCarthy refused to say he was offended or angered by the president’s regard for him. But he showed his pique, noting that Mr. Biden had assured him they would meet again after an initial Feb. 1 discussion but then failed to set up another session for months, until the House had passed its own legislation raising the debt limit while cutting spending and enacting other favored Republican priorities.
“If you believe the debt ceiling is as important as I think it is, why would you go silent for 97 days?” Mr. McCarthy asked. “Why would you tell me one thing, that we are going to meet, and then not?”
Democrats and the White House based their push for a debt-limit increase without conditions on the premise that Mr. McCarthy would be unable to unite his fractious Republican conference around any plan — not an irrational view considering that dozens of hard-right Republicans had vowed never to vote to raise the debt ceiling. Democrats believed that failure by the House Republicans would then set up a scenario where members of both parties would race to increase the debt ceiling without accompanying spending cuts to avert a catastrophic default.
But Mr. McCarthy defied expectations and squeezed through a partisan proposal that he frequently notes is so far the only legislation to raise the debt ceiling that has emerged.
The change in negotiating parameters now puts Mr. McCarthy on a more equal footing with the White House, one that Republicans think befits his stature. In the new arrangement, two top-level designees of the president, the White House counselor Steve Ricchetti and the budget director Shalanda Young, will try to hash out a deal to increase the debt ceiling directly with Representative Garret Graves, Republican of Louisiana and a close McCarthy lieutenant, along with other top aides to the speaker.
It produced a notable change in Mr. McCarthy’s attitude about the talks, which had been very pessimistic just hours before.
While he said that the two sides remained far apart on the issues, his expectations about the potential outcome had brightened considerably and his office fired off a news release declaring “Negotiations are happening.”
“After months of delay from President Joe Biden, negotiations are finally underway for a responsible debt limit increase,” it said.
Given the tight deadline, Mr. Biden and top congressional Democrats have — for the moment at least — dropped their insistence on a debt-limit increase without conditions and have instead opened the door to bipartisan agreement covering spending and some policy issues. That is where Mr. McCarthy says Democrats should have been months ago.
“Unfortunately the Democrats wasted four months, saying it had to be a clean debt limit, saying they wouldn’t negotiate,” he said. “Well you know what? All that has changed now and we are at a place where we should have been back in February.”
As events unfolded Tuesday, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader who has engineered past debt limit resolutions, said the new negotiating dynamic could be crucial to an agreement.
“The president and the speaker are the keys to the deal,” Mr. McConnell said.
Having gained what he wanted as far as negotiating power, Mr. McCarthy now faces even greater pressure to work out an agreement with Mr. Biden even though the White House and congressional Democrats are resisting key Republican demands, such as tougher work requirements on food stamps and other social benefits.
Perhaps even more of a challenge will be holding House Republicans behind whatever agreement can ultimately be reached. Many of the far-right conservatives who supported Mr. McCarthy’s proposal last month did so to strengthen his negotiating hand and are not prepared to accept anything less. Yet all sides agreed Tuesday the final outcome must be bipartisan in nature, a result which almost by definition would run into opposition from the furthest reaches of the speaker’s right flank.
Republicans believe Mr. McCarthy will be able to produce the necessary support, noting that he has already won votes on the House debt limit measure, a parental rights bill and an immigration package that he was expected to lose or abandon.
None of those measures stand a chance of survival in the Democratic-led Senate, but Mr. McCarthy’s allies say they show he has a firm grip on his members.
“He has demonstrated he has a strong hold over this conference,” said Representative Tom Cole, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the House Rules Committee. “It’s easy enough for me to say I will be comfortable with what he comes back with, given what he’s done so far.”
Mr. McCarthy predicted that he would prevail, even though some doubt his abilities.
“Here’s a Republican conference that none of you gave credibility to or thought we could achieve,” Mr. McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol, ticking through his legislative successes. “We have found that collectively we can work together and find solutions to the problems that Americans expect.”