Column: Both Biden and (surprise!) McCarthy are debt limit winners

The beginning words of the draft debt-ceiling bill
The draft bill that President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
(Jon Elswick / Associated Press)

Thank heaven, our self-induced crisis is all but over.

The House on Wednesday evening approved the compromise deal between Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden to raise the nation’s debt limit and thereby avert a default and economic calamity, at least through 2024. The Senate followed Thursday night so that Biden can sign the package into law by Monday, the “X-date” when the Treasury would no longer have authority to cover the nation’s obligations.

With this (relatively) happy ending in sight, and because I’ve focused until now on just how sorry this spectacle has been, I’m going to look on the bright side.


Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

First, as compromises go, this was the real deal. Both sides came away with wins and losses, though Biden won measurably more. (There’s really just one big loser in this saga, but I’ll save the worst for last.)

The deal would cap domestic discretionary spending in the next two fiscal years, not slash it by as much as 30% over a decade, as Republicans wanted. It preserves Biden’s landmark clean-energy initiatives, rather than repealing them. It modestly adds to existing work requirements for those who get food and welfare benefits, contrary to Republicans’ stricter proposals, and even expands eligibility for assistance. The compromise increases defense spending, but at the level Biden proposed in his budget. And it makes relatively small cuts in spending for the Internal Revenue Service that Republicans targeted.

It’s a wonder that McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), leader of a party whose base for years has considered “compromise” a four-letter word, is getting away with it, for now at least, given the MAGA mutineers in his ranks.

Only one thing would make the Republicans’ debt-ceiling hostage-and-ransom theatrics worthwhile: If the law establishing the limit were finally repealed.

May 29, 2023

That brings us to the second silver lining of this debt-limit denouement: The right-wing radicals to whom McCarthy leased his soul to become speaker are sidelined here. The bill’s passage in the House as well as the Senate is possible thanks to a rare coming together of a broad political center.

As welcome as bipartisanship is, don’t expect it to repeat itself often. It’s happening now because the stakes are so incredibly high. Most Republicans didn’t want blame for an economic disaster, even if they shared it with Biden. Many of them were as scared as Democrats about just how far the far right would go — right over the fiscal cliff? — and they coalesced for strength in numbers against the crazies.

A final positive note on the outcome and, more specifically, about its two negotiators: We’ve gotten a window into the ways of both Biden and McCarthy, reinforcing our view of the president and showing us something new in the novice speaker — pragmatism and a willingness to stand up, if rarely, to the bomb throwers.

We (barely) survived past GOP-induced default crises. This time, the most radical, least-seasoned House Republicans could force a looming economic cataclysm.

Feb. 3, 2023

First, the president. Yes, Biden is old. But his old-school ways still work.

After six terms in the Senate, he’s a deal maker at heart. I thought he was correct, if off-brand, to insist for months that he wouldn’t bargain over raising the debt limit. But Republicans control the House. Trouble was, Biden couldn’t make it clear to the public that he was willing to dicker — but only over the budget, not the nation’s creditworthiness.

OK, he’s never been a message-meister. Democrats were justified, I thought, in faulting him for not doing more publicly to counter the spin coming from McCarthy, who met with reporters multiple times daily to shape the narrative.


But Old-School Joe saved his words for the backrooms, and raked in the chips. As he teased reporters baiting him for trash talk Tuesday: “Why would Biden say what a good deal it is before the vote? You think that’s going to help me get it passed?”

The handcuffs that House Republicans have put on Speaker McCarthy will make it almost impossible for him to sign off on a debt ceiling compromise.

May 12, 2023

Apparently he’s more wily than we knew. Consider: McCarthy and other Republicans taunted Biden for weeks, first for refusing to negotiate, then for his retreat. And once there was a deal, McCarthy — to sell it — boasted to Republicans that the biggest concession he extracted from the president was getting him to talk. At the White House, the president had to be smiling. He’d maneuvered McCarthy into claiming negotiating was a big win — when negotiations were inevitable in divided government and Biden had pocketed the bulk of the real concessions.

Yet McCarthy ultimately shone as well. The bill is hardly the “transformational” legislation he claims, but, hey, if that hyperbole gives Republicans some political cover for their support, I won’t quibble. He chose as his chief deputies in the negotiations two of the most pragmatic and politically skilled Republicans in the House, Reps. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina and Garret Graves of Louisiana.

McCarthy showed some legislating chops. For example, hours after the deal came together over the weekend, he took pains to tell reporters that it included a pet provision of Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, one of the House’s most right-wing members. Massie ended up being the deciding vote Tuesday in the Rules Committee to send the bill to the full House.

The speaker may yet lose his job to a challenge from the right — Texas Rep. Chip Roy called for a “reckoning” — but for now he has chalked up a critical win, however you slice it.

As for the saga’s big loser: That was former President Trump. First, he exposed the depths of his hypocrisy and irresponsibility by urging House Republicans to allow a default if Democrats didn’t cave — though as president he’d said default was unthinkable. And in the end, Trump exposed the limits of his influence when even sycophantic House Republicans — led by the man Trump called “My Kevin”! — ignored him.


McCarthy shouldn’t get credit for compromising in a standoff he shouldn’t have provoked in the first place. But I have to give it to him.