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Who Gave Up More In The Debt Ceiling Negotiations: Biden Or Republicans?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior reporter): On Wednesday night, the House voted to approve a debt ceiling deal, pulling the country back from a catastrophic potential default. And on Thursday night, the Senate passed the bill too. The deal will suspend the debt limit until the first quarter of 2025, with some cuts to government spending and new work requirements for some recipients of government benefits. There were some dramatic moments — including a last-minute rebellion from far-right Republicans — but ultimately the 314-117 vote in favor of the bill was decisive and bipartisan.

Of course, both houses of Congress had to agree on the deal. But the Republican-controlled House was always going to be the bigger hurdle for both President Biden and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had a very slim majority to work with. So let’s talk about the political ramifications of the deal-making process and the vote in the House. How did the vote break down among Democrats and Republicans, and were you surprised by anything that happened over the course of the day on Wednesday?

kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, technology and politics reporter): Well, as expected, the outer fringes of both parties were not super stoked about this compromise, since it didn’t fully meet either side’s ideal. That meant it was up to members in the center to get it over the finish line, which they did without too much drama.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): No doubt about that, Kaleigh. If we look at a breakdown of the vote, it turns out that Republicans with more conservative voting records — and from redder districts — were somewhat more likely to vote against the bill than other Republicans. The same was true (although to a lesser extent) for more liberal Democrats from bluer seats, compared with other Democrats.

Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): I was a bit surprised to see how much of the support for the deal came from Democrats: 165 Democrats voted for it, while only 149 Republicans did, and 71 Republicans opposed it (compared to 46 Democrats). It’s hard to see how it would have passed without Democratic support, and Kevin McCarthy’s leadership was already shaky. I wonder what this will mean within McCarthy’s own caucus, that he couldn’t get enough support from his own party to pass it without Democratic help. 

geoffrey.skelley: The spin from all directions was interesting yesterday. You had a fair amount of press coverage — and many Republicans — casting the vote as proof that McCarthy can successfully lead a narrow House majority after he struggled to become speaker back in January. But then you had other right-wing voices suggesting the vote was proof that McCarthy is weak because the legislation passed with even more Democratic votes. I suspect it is too early to know for sure! A final judgment on this episode may rest on whether the party’s right flank attempts to force McCarthy out via a motion to vacate the chair, and if such an action receives significant support among the broader GOP caucus.

But at the end of the day, McCarthy did get roughly two-thirds of his caucus to back a debt ceiling hike, which is an accomplishment given the rhetoric from some in the party who opposed the agreement. (Although that kind of talk is sometimes bluster.) Really, though, McCarthy was always going to need some Democratic votes to get this over the line. That’s frustrating to members on the far right, but an actual bipartisan deal was never going to get their unabashed approval. 

ameliatd: So is this a win for McCarthy? Or not?

geoffrey.skelley: Based on what I laid out above, I guess my early view is that it’s a win for McCarthy. But the size of the win is yet to be determined.

kaleigh: It’s a modest win for McCarthy. A modest but perhaps slightly larger win for Biden.

Monica Potts: The deal is pretty far from the Republican version the House passed in April. I would say it’s a bigger win for Biden than for Republicans, but it was sort of a forced crisis in that raising the debt ceiling is just about paying for things already approved by Congress. 

ameliatd: And Biden said he wouldn’t negotiate at all! There are definitely some concessions in the deal to Republicans. Let’s talk a bit about what each side gave up. What made this deal a compromise, and who gave the most?

kaleigh: That’s the thing, right? Biden was able to get this deal together without conceding a ton to the GOP. But his original position was that this shouldn’t even be a discussion. He started by saying that raising the debt ceiling should be entirely divorced from spending talks, and obviously that didn’t happen. There could be some strategy there — stake out an extreme position so that any minor concession feels like a compromise — but it also sets a precedent for debt ceiling talks down the line as an opportunity for Republicans to squeeze spending cuts out of Democrats in order to do what ought to be a pretty standard bureaucratic function.

Monica Potts: On some of the things the sides had to give up: House Republicans really wanted to add work requirements to Medicaid for some adults, and they had to drop that demand, although they did get an expansion to work requirements in the food stamp program. This has been a Republican goal for a while: Arkansas tried a work-requirement program for Medicaid in 2018 before it was halted by the courts, arguing that the requirements would help people find work and move off coverage. That program — and work requirements in general — are opposed by progressives. It’s worth saying that most studies show that work requirements don’t increase work participation; instead they actually decrease participation in safety net programs. A Kaiser Health study of the Arkansas program found that 18,000 people were kicked off Medicaid in Arkansas while it lasted, many of whom were either not required to work or were already working but had problems meeting the reporting requirements. 

geoffrey.skelley: Eh, it probably was untenable for Biden to not give up something without making this more of a crisis. If he had been more strident — or if McCarthy gave less ground — there’d have been a higher chance of the country ending up in default, rather than getting a hard-fought negotiation that, while going down to the last minute, wasn’t necessarily a hair’s breadth from failing. Moreover, McCarthy would have had a very difficult time selling a clean debt ceiling hike to most of his membership, which was necessary for the legislation to reach the floor barring a miracle discharge petition — and it was in Biden’s interest to avoid a calamity just as much as it was for McCarthy. 

So yeah, the strategy seems to be: Stake out an early position of “we’re not negotiating,” but in reality negotiate.

Monica Potts: I agree with Kaleigh and Geoffrey that in some ways the negotiation itself is a win for Republicans. The idea that the debt ceiling is a tool for negotiating spending cuts has become more normal.

ameliatd: So … is it fair to say the real winner here was bipartisanship? (I didn’t think bipartisanship was allowed to win anymore!)

kaleigh: Call me Pollyanna but, honestly, yes. And it’s not a bad look for Biden, who has long made his ability to reach across the aisle and find compromise key to his brand.

geoffrey.skelley: There’s not a ton of bipartisanship available these days, but this is a pretty good example of getting a bipartisan result! Despite the closely-divided House, more than two-thirds of each party backed the agreement!

Monica Potts: Maybe I am cynical but I am seeing everyone as a bit of a loser. Plenty of economists have called for an end to the debt ceiling in general: It doesn’t govern future spending, and the U.S. is obligated to meet its financial obligations. Not reaching a deal could have caused a disaster, and I’m not sure anyone got enough of what they wanted to make that flirtation with disaster worth it.

geoffrey.skelley: Yes, in the long run, the debt ceiling — a thing most other developed countries do not have — should probably go the way of the dodo so we stop doing this every one or two years.

ameliatd: What’s it going to take for that to happen, though? The danger of default is such an effective bargaining chip.

geoffrey.skelley: It’ll take some sort of one-party action when that party has complete control of the government. But I think the biggest hang-up is the perceived risk of voting for getting rid of the debt ceiling or raising it so high as to be irrelevant.

kaleigh: It’s a bit like the filibuster in that way. Everyone likes it when they get to wield it, and hates it when it’s wielded against them.

ameliatd: But are everyday Americans really going to care if the debt ceiling goes bye-bye? As you wrote earlier this week, Kaleigh, their views on it are pretty muddled.

geoffrey.skelley: I think members in competitive seats, or deep-red seats, are afraid of the ads that would ensue during the next election season. Imagine: “[insert representative] voted to run up debt in this country” with some small type at the bottom of the screen noting the vote. 

kaleigh: It’s definitely a subject the average American says they don’t understand well or follow closely. If Congress were to eliminate the debt ceiling, there would of course be ways to spin it during campaign season to point out how members voted, as you note, Geoffrey, but that’s also true of this vote on the deal.

ameliatd: Now we’re talking about our bread and butter: elections. Biden has just launched his reelection campaign. What — if anything — does the deal mean for his chances in 2024?

geoffrey.skelley: Biden can sell this deal as proof of his bipartisan bona fides and commitment to responsible government vs. the chaos associated with Trump. So in that way, it may well be useful for his overall profile with voters who helped elect him in 2020 but aren’t solidly in the Democrats’ camp.

At the same time, we’re so far from the true 2024 general election campaign that it may not matter a great deal. Avoiding a debt default crisis almost certainly won’t matter as much as an actual crisis would have.

Monica Potts: I agree with Geoffrey that Biden can sell this as an example of bipartisanship. I don’t know if voters will remember this particular fight, but I think a lot will depend on the overall economy and how people are feeling about their financial situation when they vote. Americans care about how they’re doing financially, so that will matter more than this deal I think.

kaleigh: I’d agree with Geoffrey’s last point. This is almost a non-contributing factor to 2024, whereas defaulting on the debt would have been a huge blow to Biden’s campaign. But default would have been a crisis for everybody who is currently in office, so the only way through this was always going to be a compromise.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Monica Potts is a senior politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.


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