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McCarthy tries to build support for his plan for big cuts in government spending

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Kevin McCarthy is facing his first major test as speaker of the House. He told reporters last night he plans a vote on his plan to cut government spending. That's the price he's put on the table in exchange for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling so the U.S. government can avoid default. And the deadline for that is coming. But he's got a very thin majority and some holdouts in his caucus. McCarthy was on "Fox News Sunday" trying to ramp up pressure on the White House to negotiate budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

KEVIN MCCARTHY: I think as president and the leader of the free world - this is one of the problems we have challenges around this country and around the world. He needs to show leadership and come to the negotiating table instead of put us in default. This is risky, what he's doing. He's threatening the markets.

MARTIN: We called Noah Rothman for his take on the politics of all this. He's a senior writer for National Review, the conservative magazine.

Good morning, Mr. Rothman.

NOAH ROTHMAN: Good morning.

MARTIN: So McCarthy can only afford to lose a few votes from his caucus to pass this bill. What's your take on this? Will he have the votes?

ROTHMAN: Well, it didn't look like he did for most of the week following his speech announcing this plan at the New York Stock Exchange. However, we've had some movement late last night, and the Rules Committee voted to make some peripheral changes to ethanol tax breaks, for example, and new implementation of the rules that would rescind - or impose some work requirements on federal benefits programs. And that may shake the votes loose.

Initially, we had some handful of lawmakers who said they wouldn't vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances, as well as others who didn't want to change work requirements, who wanted to address the primary drivers of the nation's debt - good-faith spending, deficit hawks. But this might shake the votes loose. And if it does, that does change the calculus substantially for Democrats, and especially the White House, that had convinced itself it didn't have to negotiate at all.

MARTIN: All right. Let me here - I'm going to pause on that thought for just a minute. Let's just - what'll it mean for McCarthy if he can't get his bill passed in the House? I mean, people may remember that kind of ugly battle over attaining the speakership to begin with. Could this put his speakership in jeopardy?

ROTHMAN: It could. I mean, I - if anybody invested in the longevity of Mr. McCarthy's speakership after how he attained it, that was a bad bet. It would certainly jeopardize his speakership if he were to put forward a clean debt-ceiling resolution and rely on Democratic votes to pass it. In that event, yes, his speakership would certainly be imperiled. So that's a big bet from Speaker McCarthy's position. But it's a bet they seem to be invested in to the degree that they're willing to make changes to this package, even when they said they wouldn't.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about what you've learned about what his strategy is for bringing this bill to the floor. How is he firming up these votes?

ROTHMAN: Well, behind-the-scenes negotiations have been very closed, tight lipped. We haven't seen anything approaching a whip count in public - in the public press. In fact, as of last night in Annie Karni's piece in New York Times, the assumption was that the votes were not there. This morning, that calculation has changed following this 2 a.m. rules votes, and I think all bets are off. If they bring it to the floor, I anticipate that they have the assumption that they will manage to get this through very narrowly.

MARTIN: So wait, you heard the statement by Speaker McCarthy saying that, you know, look, this is the White House's problem, and the president is being irresponsible by not negotiating. So far, the Democrats have held firm. But look, the pressure is also on them as he prepares the - as Mr. Biden prepares his 2024 reelection bid. But he's asking for a clean bill, as you said, a budget increase without any concessions. Does that calculation change if Speaker McCarthy can present a united Republican front?

ROTHMAN: I think it does, or at the very least, it should. Look, voters saw fit to give Republicans control of the Chamber, from which all spending bills originate. That is the political reality with which this White House must contend. If the Republicans manage to present a united front to Joe Biden, look, the White House Democrats can demagogue the prospect of work requirements for federal aid programs. They can say, well, this strips climate change spending and the Inflation Reduction Act, and we don't want that, and you don't want that.

But Republicans have an argument, too. They could say that this administration is holding fast to, for example, unobligated spending that was dedicated to the pandemic emergency, which is now over. And that's what you're going to head to a default over? That's what we're playing chicken over? That's a compelling argument as well. I do think that both Democrats and Republicans will have to go to the table if this package passes and Republicans demonstrate that they can actually unify around this plan.

MARTIN: Well, you called it demagoguery. I think that Democrats might argue that, you know, bringing up work requirements at this stage is demagoguery. But having said that, you know, there is such a thing called regular order. As you mentioned, the House has a role - a constitutional role - in setting the budget. Is there any thought at any point in our history that people might return to regular order, where, you know, the White House sends the budget; House and Senate discuss it; they have hearings; they send it back? What is that? Is that even within the realm of possibility in our lifetimes?

ROTHMAN: I mean, it is definitely a lovely thought. We've been talking about it for a decade. You know what the primary obstacle to that is? - is transparency in Washington - as much as we might dislike it. But if we were to record, for example, only major vote tallies rather than individual votes, it might make it easier on members to actually return to a regular order budget process.

MARTIN: That is Noah Rothman. He's a senior writer for National Review.

Noah Rothman, thanks so much for talking to us today.

ROTHMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.