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House Republicans’ coming Wile-E-Coyote moment

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks during a news conference in Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.

House Republicans, brash and cocky, think they’re on the offense in demanding huge spending cuts in order to pass an essential debt ceiling measure — expecting President Biden will chicken out, back down.

It’s more likely they will end up on the defense, scrambling to devise a budget/spending plan acceptable to the most right-wing fringe of the GOP House conference and that can muster 218 votes to pass.

The worst case is they replicate “Buzz Gunderson,” the cocky tough guy in the classic movie, “Rebel without a Cause,” who challenged James Dean to a game of chicken, a car race approaching a cliff to see who jumped out first.

Gunderson went over the cliff.

With this crew of Republicans, it’s more like Wile-E-Coyote going over the cliff … except the real consequences could be dire.

To satisfy the demands of the hard core, calling in the chits and private deals that enabled Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to squeak into the Speakership, a debt/budget proposal would have to be big and include cuts to Social Security and/or Medicare, which comprise a third of the federal budget. That’s what they’re talking about; it’s a political loser, especially if tied to the debt ceiling.

“If we can’t win that fight, we ought to be in another business,” says Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget committee.

The debt limit battle probably won’t be fully joined until this summer. And the GOP already is talking about postponing any showdown.

This spring the Republicans will unveil a budget, short of many specifics and long on gimmicks — wildly optimistic economic assumptions, big savings through rooting out “waste, fraud and abuse.” To achieve their promise of a balanced budget in ten years, they have to come up with some real humongous reductions, almost inevitably with cuts in entitlements — even while dressing them up as “reform” and vowing not to touch current recipients.

They can fuzz up the first exercise enough to create an “imaginary” budget, but “They can’t get there because the math is impossible,” suggests Boyle.

The debt ceiling is being used only as a vehicle for political leverage. It covers previous obligations and has nothing to do with future spending.

It does represent the full faith and credit of the United States.

If a crucial deadline is missed and there’s a government shutdown, the U.S. credit rating may be downgraded. If it’s a long stalemate, it could be an economic catastrophe.

With only a four-vote margin and enough members insisting anything more than token defense cuts are off the table, this is McCarthy’s dilemma: Do enough to satisfy the right-wing nuts and not too much to alienate the usually “timid twenty,” the members who won by less than 1 percent last year or represent districts carried by Joe Biden in 2020. That will be a very elusive fault line.

There are a couple other complications.

Republicans have promised to consider major legislation under an open rule that allows numerous proposed amendments; that could result in chaos.

If a congressional leader loses a major legislative floor vote, it’s usually devastating. McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), with a similarly narrow margin, never lost a major vote.

Moreover, if McCarthy fails to satisfy the hard-core right, one of them might offer a privileged motion to dump him; if all the Democrats oppose McCarthy, it would only take five Republicans to oust him.

If the Republicans try to really slash discretionary domestic spending — and not touch Social Security, Medicare, Defense or taxes — it will be daunting. That leaves only a relatively small fraction of the budget, and there are political untouchables like veteran benefits, border security, or much of the now popular affordable health care measure.

They may have to recycle the old gambit of creating a commission to study entitlements; Democrats will insist it look at taxes too, which the Republican right will reject.

The White House needs to do a better job of committing to negotiations over long-term budget issues, but not tied to the debt ceiling.

Senate Republicans — so far — are content to sit back and let their House counterparts take the heat.

The most probable scenario later this year, close observers fear, is with a zealous band of right-wingers and a weak Speaker, there’ll be a government shutdown and some sort of default with ugly consequences.

This is another reminder of what a travesty the debt ceiling is.

There are legitimate spending and budgetary battles. They should be fought out in regular order: the authorizations and appropriations process.

Some day, maybe a sensible Congress will enact the reform proposal by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Boyle. It would give the Treasury Secretary authority to set the debt ceiling subject to a two house congressional veto.

It would go a long way to ending these dangerous games.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Brendan Boyle debt ceiling debt default Debt limit Dick Durbin Entitlement reform far right far-right agenda Far-right politics game of chicken Government shutdown House Freedom Caucus House GOP House GOP leaders House Republicans House Speaker Kevin McCarthy Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Medicare Medicare cuts Nancy Pelosi raising the debt ceiling raising the debt limit Republican House Majority Social Security Social Security benefits social security cuts spending cuts timid twenty United States debt ceiling waste fraud and abuse

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