US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks to members of the media at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on May 30, 2023. Republican and Democratic leaders scrambled on May 29, 2023, to secure congressional support for a bill aimed at avoiding a US debt default. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Five months ago, Kevin McCarthy looked unlikely to forge a bipartisan agreement to help avert a disastrous US default.

He had just overcome a humiliating 15 rounds of voting by making big concessions to conservatives to earn his gavel as House speaker, leaving him seemingly subjugated to the far right of his party.

On Wednesday, McCarthy won over just enough of those hard-liners "- even as some of them threatened to oust him. But it was a close call getting to this stage and depended on the vote of one rigid libertarian to even get the bill to the floor.


It ultimately passed 314-117. McCarthy persuaded more than two thirds of his party but there was still one problem: more Democrats backed it than Republicans, a fact conservative critics will use to argue the speaker made a bad deal.

And so McCarthy's most triumphant moment as speaker is also his most fraught. Even after forcing Biden to agree to concessions the president once vowed he'd never entertain, McCarthy finds himself on tenterhooks.

He must hold at bay restive right-wing lawmakers angry that the speaker couldn't wrest from Biden even deeper spending cuts and restrictions for social programs, and they're now weighing whether to try to replace him.

His allies say he deserves more credit. Asked whether McCarthy is underestimated, Patrick McHenry of North Carolina answered: "For damn sure."

Wednesday's House vote, he said, would show "why that is a wrong proposition here in Washington."

In private talks with lawmakers and aides, McCarthy has said he's determined to avoid the fate of his Republican predecessor John Boehner, who resigned as speaker in 2015 after striking deals with then-President Barack Obama that were unpopular with conservatives. Financial markets would have to crash for McCarthy to entirely abandon the demands of hard-line Republicans, these people said.

They asked not to be identified to protect their relationships with the speaker.

Representative Thomas Massie, a conservative Kentuckian who wears a home-made badge with a digital count of the national debt, cast a critical vote to clear the legislation from a key House committee on Tuesday.

The vote was cast in the cigar-scented chamber of the House Rules Committee, which typically operates as all but a rubber stamp for the speaker. It came after two other hard-liners "- Chip Roy of Texas and Ralph Norman of South Carolina "- threatened to kill the bill in committee.

McCarthy's ability to sway Massie showed perhaps more than any other maneuver in the last several weeks that he can operate within his political constraints.

Throughout the debt-ceiling negotiations, the speaker has set the tempo. He forced Biden to the table by threatening to allow a default, then publicly shamed the president into cutting short official travel to the Asia-Pacific region to engage with him.

McCarthy has stayed in front of television cameras, briefing reporters in-person on progress in the talks and his side's position. Some House Democrats complained that their leaders and the White House weren't keeping up on messaging.

The speaker stayed in Washington over Memorial Day weekend, drawing a contrast with Biden, who was needled by the Republican National Committee for traveling to Camp David and Delaware. McCarthy's also looked strategically chill "- bike riding with one of his negotiators, Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana, and strolling the National Mall.

The White House's position on the deal is that House Republicans would have eventually won spending curbs anyway and that Biden's priorities, especially the tax-and-climate law he signed last year, were untouched. By suspending the debt ceiling until January 2025, Biden won't have to contend with the issue again unless he's reelected.

Narrowing Talks

With talks looking close to unraveling two weeks ago, McCarthy successfully demanded that the two sides narrow their negotiating teams to two people each, in addition to him and the president.

On May 19, when McCarthy and his team felt the White House wasn't conceding enough to win GOP support for the bill, he blessed a theatrical walkout by his negotiators, Graves and McHenry.

"He empowered us," Graves said. Soon afterward, Biden reached out to restart talks.

McCarthy also benefited from the silence of Donald Trump, who last week urged Republicans to "get everything they want" and "do not fold" in the debt-ceiling fight. Trump said after the deal passed that while McCarthy "worked very hard," he would have opted for a default instead.

That McCarthy is in peril at all is a result of the concessions he had to make to become speaker, including an agreement that a "motion to vacate the chair," triggering an immediate vote to remove him, could be brought by any one member of the House at any time.

Tuesday morning, during a fiery news conference in which 10 members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus disparaged the debt-ceiling deal and McCarthy, North Carolina's Dan Bishop said he was weighing whether to make the motion.

But none of the other conservatives joined him. Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado even defended McCarthy, saying the deal's shortcomings weren't his fault. By the end of the day, Bishop had retreated from the idea, declining to discuss it as he left a closed-door meeting of the GOP caucus.

"Kevin McCarthy stock is trading higher now than it has at any point in his congressional career," said Dusty Johnson of South Dakota. "I'd be quite surprised by the motion to vacate."