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HomeMarketKevin McCarthy Needs a Face-Saving Exit to End the Debt-Ceiling Fight

Kevin McCarthy Needs a Face-Saving Exit to End the Debt-Ceiling Fight

U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks to reporters as he arrives to a meeting with the House Republican Steering Committee at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

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Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

About the author: Casey Burgat is the director of the Legislative Affairs program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

After officially reaching the statutory debt limit of $31.381 trillion last week, the Treasury Department began a series of “extraordinary measures” to keep the U.S. government from an unprecedented default. Unless Congress agrees to raise the debt limit—the maximum amount of money the government can borrow—by June, the U.S. and global economies will experience catastrophic economic consequences.

House Republicans have used the threat of economic default as leverage for reduced government spending. They are demanding that any debt ceiling increase must be paired with spending reductions on programs and initiatives Democrats are unwilling to cut. Democrats have maintained that the debt limit isn’t a political football and should be raised without conditions, as it has been in the past under presidents of both parties.

While many government officials, including dozens of congressional Republicans, have outright rejected the possibility of default, many are rightfully wondering how the government will avoid walking off the fiscal cliff. President Joe Biden met with Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy to discuss the debt limit Wednesday afternoon. Here are a few key considerations to keep in mind during what is sure to be a months-long staring contest with the global economy hanging in the balance.

First, it’s important to remember what to ignore: Many on the right continue to argue that refusing to raise the debt ceiling is the best way to prevent the federal government from enacting new spending. That’s not true; the debt ceiling needs to be raised to pay for spending that has already been enacted, including by presidents and congressional majorities of both parties.

Second, there is already a process—completely independent of the debt ceiling—by which Congress makes national spending and budget decisions. Appropriations decisions, whether increases or decreases in funding levels, are constitutionally required of Congress and can’t be executed unless both chambers agree. Republicans can and should use the congressional budget process to offer their spending and budget plan. And they should demand rigorous and transparent debate on all budgeting decisions.

The main reason House Republicans are conflating the debt ceiling and spending decisions is because they know full well they won’t get the spending cuts they seek in the traditional budget process with a Democratic Senate and White House. They figure, because the consequences of default are so dire, Democrats will decide that some reductions to pet programs are worth avoiding the worst case scenario. But, as high-ranking officials in both parties have stated repeatedly, the debt ceiling is the wrong hostage to take to win spending concessions.

Third, Republicans have not offered any real specifics of their demands beyond talking points about addressing ballooning national debt and runaway government spending. In life and in legislating, the devil is always in the details. It’s one thing to have party unity behind the abstract idea of spending cuts, but it’s a far different matter to itemize exactly what programs are headed for the chopping block. One representative’s frivolous government spending is another’s untouchable sacred cow.

Some Republicans have said military funding is untouchable; others have said they’re willing to look at targeted defense cuts. Ditto for Social Security and Medicare. The fact that there is no conference-approved list of targeted spending cuts is a clear indication that they don’t have one. Until they are able to agree to one, if ever, Republicans are effectively negotiating with themselves and likely planning to spin any stall in increased spending as a political win down the road.

Fourth, because of the razor-thin majorities in both the House and Senate, a few moderate Republicans can end the fiscal game of chicken right now. Speaker McCarthy has a historically narrow majority. If only five moderate House Republicans broke ranks and decided that the debt ceiling is too toxic a threat to follow through on, they can join Democrats and send the Senate a clean debt ceiling bill. This will not happen, and of course, nine Republican Senators would still have to agree not to filibuster such a bill in the upper chamber. But that decision would be a lot harder to make if the House put the prospect of default squarely on the Senate’s shoulders.

Finally, history is likely our best guide when predicting how the debt ceiling showdown will play out. As was true for former Republican Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan—both of whom attempted to leverage the debt ceiling against a Democratic president to appease their conservative flank—McCarthy will soon have to make a choice between responsible governing or pushing the country into economic devastation.

His two Republican predecessors ultimately chose the responsible path. After failing to get enough Republican support in Congress, Boehner and Ryan were forced to seek out Democratic votes to raise the debt ceiling. And both were eventually pushed out of the speakership by their own conference largely because they gave in. 

McCarthy is facing an eerily similar situation and is no doubt working on an option—any option—that satisfies all factions within the Republican conference and keeps the gavel in his hand. But, as his multiple day battle for the speakership exposed, nearly two dozen House Republicans proved willing to take their own party and leadership to the brink of disaster. 

The same holdouts, and potentially even more, likely won’t be quick to give McCarthy a face-saving off ramp in the debt limit showdown. So we wait.

Guest commentaries like this one are written by authors outside the Barron’s and MarketWatch newsroom. They reflect the perspective and opinions of the authors. Submit commentary proposals and other feedback to


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