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Don't believe the hype: Low-key lawmakers helped avert a debt ceiling crisis

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters about debt ceiling negotiations at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
Anna Moneymaker
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Getty Images
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters about debt ceiling negotiations at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.

In a time when cynicism about politics seems to be everyone's gut reaction, it's easy to overlook the role of lower-profile lawmakers who helped avert a debt-ceiling crisis.

Just don't call them "moderates."

"Moderates?" tweetedRep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., one of the lead negotiators of the debt-ceiling deal that passed the House overwhelmingly Wednesday night. He prefers the descriptor: "pragmatic conservatives who actually care about getting to work."

Johnson, who looks more Bill Gates than Matt Gaetz, represents about 75 GOP members as chairman of the "Republican Main Street Caucus."

It's one of what this Congress' Republicans colloquially refer to as the mafioso-themed "Five Families." The Main Street Caucus, and a host of other coalitions in the middle, like the "New Democrat Coalition" on the other side of the aisle, were critical in securing support for the deal.

There were plenty of well-founded complaints on either side — on the left, worries about increased work requirements that could hurt people in poverty, nervousness about the environmental impact of sped-up energy permits; on the right, continued head-shaking about what they see as out-of-control spending and debt, now topping $30 trillion.

But in the end, two-thirds of House Republicans and more than three-quarters of Democrats voted for the bill for a total tally of 314-117.

The Senate still has to pass the measure, but if it does, as is expected, it will be those who eschewed the wings of their parties — which have some of the most vocal, attention-getting members — who averted a potentially calamitous, first-ever U.S. debt default.

Call them perhaps the Silent Middle Majority.

The dealmakers make their move

President Biden walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday ahead of the House vote on a bill that raises the debt ceiling and caps spending for two years.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday ahead of the House vote on a bill that raises the debt ceiling and caps spending for two years.

President Biden came into office with the narrowest of congressional majorities and not exactly a progressive fan favorite.

The hotly negative feelings toward him on the right have ballooned in the last two years, as conservatives inaccurately painted him as a doddering marionette of the progressive left.

On the other side, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy doesn't exactly have the strongest of hands with his members. He has a sliver of a majority — just four seats — and squeaked through to become speaker after a historic 15 rounds of voting.

He had to make concessions to get the job he's wanted for more than a decade, and he wound up empowering the most extreme and pugilistic in his party in the process.

The truth is political partisanship is as bad now or worse than at almost any other time in modern history.

That's backed up by data. The parties, especially Republicans, are far more homogenous and ideologically aligned on almost every issue, from guns to abortion rights to gender identity.

There are far fewer swing districts today than there were even 15 years ago — just a few dozen of 435 can even be considered truly competitive, giving lawmakers very little incentive to compromise.

None of that boded well for this moment.

But that narrative of partisanship can also lead to overhyped drama of the extremes.

After all, Biden got the presidential nomination despite his more moderate profile, and McCarthy has the support of the overwhelming majority of his conference.

While McCarthy has been largely untested as speaker legislatively to this point, Biden has shown time and again his ability to work with whomever is across the table from him.

He did it in 2011 with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell on the debt ceiling. And despite GOP intransigence only deepening, Biden has been able to pull off multiple bipartisan pieces of legislation since taking office, including:

  • the $1 trillion infrastructure bill; 
  • the CHIPS Act, which aims to build more semiconductors in the United States; 
  • the bill that provided health care and benefits for millions of veterans injured by exposure to toxins like Agent Orange in Vietnam and burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan; and
  • the $1.7 trillion federal government funding bill that got 68 votes in the Senate and included a revised Electoral Count Act.
  • This week's debt-ceiling deal once again burnishes that image of Biden as a dealmaker despite the odds.

    The bill also does something important politically for both Biden and McCarthy: It raises the debt ceiling until 2025. In other words, it takes the issue off the table until after the presidential election.

    With an already iffy economy, persistent inflation and climbing interest rates, that's good news for Biden. He has plenty of other vulnerabilities to worry about, and another debt-ceiling fight right in the middle of a presidential campaign is the last thing he or his staff needed.

    The delayed rematch also means McCarthy might not have to put forward another hard vote for his members for a year and a half. That's key for him, since he may have angered the far right to get this deal over the finish line.

    Danger still lurks for McCarthy

    The GOP right has plagued past Republican speakers, and to win this speakership, McCarthy had to make some big concessions to another one of the Five Families: the archconservative Freedom Caucus.

    For one, McCarthy allowed the Freedom Caucus to have approval over some members of the Rules Committee, which determines how bills are voted on.

    And, perhaps most importantly, the California congressman, who has never been beloved by the most conservative faction of his party, agreed to lower the threshold to bring a vote to the floor to oust the speaker to just a single member.

    Even with that looming, in his first big deal with Democrats, McCarthy didn't turn to the hard right, but to the likes of Reps. Johnson and Garret Graves, R-La.

    Graves is seen as a get-it-done person among Republican members. Before becoming a congressman, he was chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana, where he was integral in fighting for dollars after the BP oil spill.

    In congressional leadership, Graves is the chair of the Elected Leadership Committee, which meets with representatives of the Five Families regularly.

    So he's very familiar with all the key players.

    But that didn't stop some of the right-wing members from trying to kill the bill, which they didn't deem conservative enough.

    And they nearly succeeded.

    Freedom Caucus member Chip Roy of Texas seemed willing to go to the brink of default — or indeed over that cliff — to force McCarthy's hand and ask for more cuts.

    "A reminder that during Speaker negotiations to build the coalition, that it was explicit both that nothing would pass Rules Committee without AT LEAST 7 GOP votes," he tweeted, "AND that the Committee would not allow reporting out rules without unanimous Republican votes."

    But like another Roy this week who needed just one more vote to get what he wanted (see Roy, Kendall of Succession), in the end, he couldn't persuade conservative Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie to help him block the bill from advancing past the committee.

    Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa. on PBS NewsHour Tuesday night declined to say whether he would force a vote on ousting McCarthy if his effort to derail the debt-ceiling vote failed.

    "We'll have that discussion after this is done," Perry said.

    Now, it is done. And for one night, the pragmatists won.

    Of course, before McCarthy gets too comfortable, he would do well to remember that, in the end, Michael Corleone took out Stracci, Cuneo, Tattaglia and Barzini to wrest control.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.