Opinion | How to own the notebooks by raising the debt ceiling

It’s too early to say we’ll avoid hitting the debt ceiling, but it’s not too early to say how we’ll avoid hitting it if we do. Miscalculations by Democrats and ideological shifts among Republicans paved the way for a deal.

President Biden made several assumptions at the start of this debate: House Republicans would tear themselves apart if some of them refused to pass a debt ceiling increase, if some of them insisted on unpopular cuts to entitlements and if others blanched at the political prospect. Risks Centrist and business lobbies would pressure Republicans to pass a bill raising the debt ceiling with no strings attached. The Democrats would look reasonable in this context and could hold out until the Republicans caved. A handful of moderates would eventually join Democrats in raising the debt ceiling without any accompanying spending cuts.

None of this worked, and Democrats have been slow to adjust as the failure of their initial strategy has become apparent.

The reason it didn’t work is that today’s Republicans are not like the Tea Party Republicans of 10 years ago. They are more eager to defeat the liberals and less eager to see major reductions in the size of the federal government. The unrealistic insistence of the Democrats that there could be no negotiations on the debt ceiling gave the Republicans the opportunity to achieve a political victory. The fact of a deal has now largely replaced the substance of a deal as a Republican goal. This version of the Republican Party enjoys the fight, but is flexible about its resolution.

Which is a great fit for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)’s skill set. Unlike Biden, McCarthy got the political situation right, to the point of surprising and delighting his skeptics. Republicans stuck together and passed their own debt ceiling increase, one that left the entitlements untouched, resetting the politics of the fight in their favor. After the Republicans acted, the pressure fell on the Democrats to make a counter offer. Democrats began questioning one another, with some urging Biden to make a prime-time speech that was supposed to boost public opinion. (It’s not clear that any televised presidential address has moved opinion enough to matter on Capitol Hill, but one certainly wouldn’t now.)

The political victories in the emerging deal reports aren’t important, and they don’t need to be. They surely won’t be enough to win the votes of McCarthy’s more conservative troops. But those conservatives don’t seem motivated to block a deal or force McCarthy out of his job by trusting Democrats to pass it.

The formula for passage, then, is for McCarthy to get enough Republicans to win his political victory while enough House Democrats agree to the reality that they will have to eat their words about dealing with the kidnappers. McCarthy would then have not only survived the Republican defections, but also strengthened his power and position with a modest but real political victory.

Passing a deal, again, if it happens, would not be a political disaster for Biden. He won’t see the political benefits he hoped to gain from Republican incompetence, divisiveness, and extremism. It will not have established once and for all a new principle according to which both parties have a moral obligation to raise the debt ceiling without conditions. Progressives would complain about the fall, but they won’t give it up for it. And he would avoid the political and economic damage that a default would have brought. This is not a terrible result for him, or for the country.

If a deal passes, it will probably set spending levels for the rest of this Congress. In that case, the job of the legislature will be effectively over. Additional tax fights would be postponed until 2025. Bring on the 2024 election!