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A.B. Stoddard Opinion: Kevin McCarthy’s Debt Ceiling Dodge Is Lame

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The great deflection has begun. As the deadline approaches for a debt ceiling increase, without one sign of progress on this critical issue to show for his nearly three months as House speaker, Kevin McCarthy is trying to blame inaction on President Joe Biden.

Congress is about to blow town for a two-week recess and has a handful of days left at work to produce a budget by April 15. Republicans can miss this statutory deadline, just as Biden did, submitting his budget four weeks late. But the Treasury Department has announced the government will pay its bills through early June, and the debt ceiling will be reached sometime between July and September.

The recent banking crisis has brought more volatility to the markets, making the case for reaching resolution immediately and not taking these negotiations to the brink of default: When this happened in 2011, it resulted in a credit rating downgrade that cost the taxpayers $1.3 billion. Every day that goes by without a GOP list of spending cuts to start negotiations is a wasted day.

McCarthy knows this, but he’s pretending the burden belongs to Biden. In his letter to the president, he said he is “incredibly concerned” that Biden is putting an “already fragile economy in jeopardy” by failing to invite the House speaker to meet. The breathless missive declared Biden and his team “completely missing in action on any meaningful follow-up to this rapidly approaching deadline.” McCarthy cited “dire ramifications” and insisted, “I have no interest in brinksmanship.”

McCarthy listed some items he said would reduce spending and create economic growth – returning spending to pre-inflationary levels, reclaiming unspent COVID relief funds, lowering energy costs, securing the border to stop the flow of fentanyl, and strengthening work requirements for assistance programs. This is merely a vague outline, without specific dollar amounts or program names, hardly enough for a “meaningful follow-up.”

This isn’t McCarthy’s first complaint. He has been at this for weeks, saying that “unfortunately the president doesn’t think it’s important,” and complaining at the St. Patrick’s Day lunch at the Capitol that “nobody has called me” about meeting again.

To be clear, this is not Biden’s negotiation to initiate. Yes, he released a budget, but no president’s budget is ever passed as released, and in a divided government, as we have now, such plans are merely laughed at. Nothing he proposed – new taxes on the rich, or $3 trillion in debt reduction over the next decade – is happening, nor are these ideas part of a negotiation over how to raise the debt ceiling. Congress raises the debt ceiling – not the president in the executive branch. Biden has said he will not negotiate over the debt limit, but Republicans control the House and have vowed not to raise the debt ceiling without steep spending reductions. Of course Democrats should debate, and compromise on, spending cuts. Those could be contained in the annual spending bills passed in September, and don’t have to be attached to the debt ceiling. But Republicans cannot begin to force Democrats to compromise on cuts if they don’t have any yet.

Biden asked McCarthy weeks ago to reveal what House Republicans have planned.

“I want to make it clear I’m ready to meet with the speaker anytime, tomorrow, if he has his budget,” he said on March 9. “Lay it down. Tell me what you want to do.”

On Tuesday the White House released a statement in response to the speaker’s letter calling on Republicans to pass a clean debt ceiling increase and adding, “If they want to have a conversation about our nation’s economic and fiscal future, it’s time for them to put out a budget – as the President has done with his detailed plan to grow the economy, lower costs, and reduce the deficit by nearly $3 trillion.”

The House Republican majority is currently holding hearings, where cabinet secretaries are testifying about Biden’s budget – that the GOP has pilloried – but have not revealed what will make up the $130 billion in cuts they said must be passed in order for the debt ceiling to be raised.

McCarthy isn’t even pretending House Republicans are close to deciding on a consensus list of cuts. Last week when a reporter noted the chairman of the House Budget Committee said he was drawing up “a deal sheet,” saying to McCarthy, “Arrington said you were finalizing a list of proposals to give to Biden about spending cuts,” the speaker said, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Finalizing that list in a deeply divided House GOP conference may not even be possible – but that is McCarthy’s problem, not Biden’s. And if House Republicans don’t hurry up, Senate Republicans may throw them under the bus. Punchbowl reported last week that “Some GOP senators believe that the longer this drags on, the more likely it becomes that they’ll have to accept a clean debt limit hike in order to stave off a catastrophic default,” and quoted Sen. Mike Rounds saying that while it’s reasonable that House Republicans wants to address long term budget problems, “they also have to be reasonable in knowing what we can do in a matter of one year. But long-term you’ve got to have a better plan than what is being laid out today.”

McCarthy doesn’t possess Donald Trump’s distraction skills – hurl a shiny metal object out on social media and direct everyone’s attention, and the political debate, away from what is truly happening. While McCarthy might know how to count votes, he’s not an able bluffer, or showman. His warning to Biden – “you are on the clock” – is quintessential projection. The speaker is tasked with passing spending cuts to raise the debt ceiling. What he has to do is find them.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics and a guest host on Sirius XM’s POTUS Channel. This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.



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