Meet McCarthy’s closers on debt ceiling talks
High-stakes debt limit talks are underscoring the importance to Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) of two key allies: Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.).
The two Republicans were integral in helping McCarthy secure the Speaker’s gavel in the 15-ballot, drawn-out election at the start of the year.
Now, they are key GOP negotiators in debt ceiling talks with the White House that will test whether McCarthy can extract a deal that raises the nation’s borrowing limit while appeasing conservatives in his conference.
The Speaker publicly selected Graves to lead negotiations once the White House agreed to remove other Congressional leaders from the talks. He was McCarthy’s pick to be ranking member in the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in the last Congress, and he has been at the center of the House GOP debt limit strategy for months.
“He understands policy. Many people would call him a policy wonk,” McCarthy said last week.
The path was less formal for McHenry, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee who normally does not seek the spotlight.
“It’s not what I intended to do when I walked in the Speaker’s office on Wednesday [last week],” McHenry said. “But I want to help.”
Graves, an outdoorsman who stands more than 6 feet tall, jokingly describes the much shorter McHenry, known for his signature bow ties, as his “little brother.”
“I’m just like a little guy with a bow tie walking around doing my thing,” said the white-haired McHenry, who is 47 and four years younger than Graves.
“But I’ve done a few legislative pieces here too,” added McHenry, who was 29 when first elected to Congress and has served in the House a decade longer than Graves.
GOP colleagues praised the two men for having a unique knack for getting into the weeds on policy and having their pulses on the politics of the House Republican Conference.
“It’s no accident that these are the same two guys that played an integral role in negotiating the Speakership deal,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Rules Committee.
The two critical junctures are inherently related.
Republicans who withheld support for McCarthy during the Speaker’s election had insisted on a commitment to reverting overall discretionary spending to fiscal 2022 levels — one of the major asks from Republicans in the debt limit talks and a sticking point with the White House.
Ever since the Speakership contest, Graves has been deeply involved in weekly meetings with McCarthy and leaders of the “five families” — the major caucuses in the House GOP like the House Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee.
Graves has said Speakership week helped members of the GOP conference build relationships with one another. He expects the same to happen if and when a deal is reached.
“When we finish these negotiations, I think the trust is going to be improved,” Graves said Tuesday.
Graves had negotiating experience before coming to Congress in his role as chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. He represented the state in negotiations with British Petroleum after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, securing $360 million from British Petroleum to respond to the spill.
McHenry said that with Graves in the room with White House negotiators, there has been “a little bit of comedy.”
“Patrick McHenry and Garrett Graves are really smart sons of bitches,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), chairman of the Republican Main Street Caucus. “But they don’t try to convince you of that fact. They have a certain underlying maturity and humility that makes them really effective negotiators.”
Johnson said each of the two is a “dual purpose” negotiator.
“Yes, you need to be talking to the White House, but you also need to be talking to the conference,” Johnson said. “Those guys are so good that they’re trusted by both ends of that process.”
After the Silicon Valley Bank collapse earlier this year — one of the first big flashpoints for McHenry in his role on the Financial Services Committee earlier this year — McHenry showed a willingness to give the Biden administration political cover as regulators dealt with the fallout.
Some reactive Republicans lashed out after the regulators said all depositors in Silicon Valley Bank, even those over the usual $250,000 insured limit in their accounts, would be made whole, with some accusing the government of rewarding a “woke” business. But McHenry criticized politicians for using the crisis to drive an agenda and said regulators were “doing the right thing.”
Asked Tuesday whether he has CEOs and members of the business community reaching out to him as the debt limit deadline approaches, McHenry said his “texts are a dumpster fire.”
The North Carolina congressman also has a deep understanding of the internal politics of the House. He was the House GOP’s chief deputy whip for more than four years under then-Whip Steve Scalise through the end of 2018.
Because of that, McHenry was seen as a possible contender for that position. But last year, he opted to instead seek the chair of the House Financial Services panel.
While McHenry and Graves have successfully navigated the political dynamics of the conference so far, the very nature of their status as negotiators is likely to draw the ire of hard-line conservatives.
“If we ultimately reach a deal,” Graves said on Tuesday, “you’ll see concessions on both sides.”
The vocal discontent with negotiation is ticking up. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said this week that Republicans “don’t feel like we should negotiate with our hostage.” And Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) on Wednesday sent a memo to colleagues saying all the sweeping measures in the House GOP’s debt limit bill are “critical and none should be abandoned solely for the quest of a ‘deal.’”
Graves has signaled he knows how his House GOP colleagues feel about certain issues.
“I know that Chip [Roy] feels very strongly about this. This isn’t a deal where we want to be in a situation where we just show, ‘look, one year [of spending], we did something,’ and pat ourselves on the back,” Graves told reporters.
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