ANALYSIS: McCarthy Emerges Stronger From Debt Ceiling Battle

ANALYSIS: McCarthy Emerges Stronger From Debt Ceiling Battle
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to the press after meeting President Joe Biden and other leaders at the White House on May 16, 2023. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Lawrence Wilson

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is no longer the underrated leader of the House of Representatives.

After encountering a rocky road to the speakership and being persistently ignored by President Joe Biden, the dogged Californian succeeded in compelling the president to negotiate, standing firm on red-line issues, and moving a debt ceiling bill through Congress while holding a razor-thin majority.

With the passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, McCarthy, 58, emerged as a skilled strategist and consensus-builder who can leverage small wins into major legislative achievements.

Just weeks before, he was fighting for his political life.

15 Ballots

The election of a House speaker is usually a perfunctory matter. When there is no incumbent, the majority conference leader is considered a shoo-in. That wasn’t the case for McCarthy.

His election dragged on over five days and 15 ballots because of a challenge by far-right conservatives within his own party.

In the end, McCarthy won by making concessions to the holdouts, including a rule change that allows any member to call for a vote to vacate the chair.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) (L) talks to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) during elections for House speaker at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) (L) talks to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) during elections for House speaker at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Political commentators said McCarthy was on a “short leash,” beholden to the most conservative members of his party, and was likely to be an ineffectual speaker.

First Test

Barely a week after McCarthy ascended the rostrum, the Treasury secretary announced that the country would soon reach its statutory debt ceiling. Without congressional action, a financial crisis was about four months away.

McCarthy immediately said that Congress wouldn't increase the debt without spending cuts and that he would not agree to raise taxes. The speaker called on the president to negotiate terms for raising the borrowing limit.

After an initial conversation on Feb. 1, Biden, perhaps sensing political weakness, refused to meet with the speaker for 97 days. McCarthy asked for a meeting, he complained to reporters, he wrote a letter to Biden, and even offered to meet for lunch and bring “soft food.” Still, Biden refused to meet.

Yet, the speaker wasn’t idle during that time.

Small Victories

Through late winter and early spring, McCarthy assembled a string of legislative victories. While none was groundbreaking in its own right, the growing list of small wins proved he could manage his own conference and also challenge the president.

The Parents Bill of Rights, approved by the House on March 24, aimed to strengthen parental rights in education.

The House nullified a controversial revision of the Washington, D.C., criminal code on April 19, despite indications of a presidential veto. The Senate followed suit, and the president signed the legislation.

The Secure the Border Act of 2023, passed by the House on May 11, aimed to beef up border security ahead of the expiration of pandemic-related provisions.

Illegal immigrants are transferred by Border Patrol agents near El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 27, 2022. (Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images)
Illegal immigrants are transferred by Border Patrol agents near El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 27, 2022. (Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images)

As the debt ceiling standoff wore on, McCarthy began to answer doubts about his leadership by pointing to his achievements, modest though they were.

“I don’t mind being underrated,” McCarthy told members of the New York Stock Exchange in April. “I think it's better if I'm just hitting singles and doubles. I'll score more runs.”


McCarthy then scored a victory that dramatically changed the dynamics of the debt ceiling fight. By a single vote, House Republicans approved the Limit, Save, Grow Act on April 26. The bill included a modest increase in the debt ceiling, along with a host of GOP demands for spending cuts, work requirements, permitting reforms, and clawbacks of unspent COVID-19 relief funds.

And with that, McCarthy achieved what few thought possible. He united House Republicans behind a debt limit and spending package, and placed pressure on Biden to come to terms.

Five days later, Biden invited McCarthy to discuss spending cuts.

“President Biden didn't dream in a million years, after the difficult race for speaker that we saw in January, that Speaker McCarthy would be able to unify Republicans in the House of Representatives and actually pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said on June 1.

“And I think President Biden was shocked that he was able to get that done ... it changed the whole dynamics of this negotiation.”

More impressive was McCarthy’s emergence as a leader beyond the House chamber, according to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

“I can't remember the last time that the Senate Republicans agreed as a group that their negotiator would be the speaker of the House,” Gingrich told The Epoch Times. “[Sen. Mitch] McConnell [R-Ky.], the Senate Republican leader, was very clear that McCarthy had won the vote in the House and had earned the right to negotiate.”

Those negotiations ended in a compromise, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support.

More Unified

McCarthy still has detractors on his right flank. Some have complained that he gave away hard-won provisions of the Limit, Save, Grow Act too easily in order to clinch a deal. Some have hinted that there might be a vote to vacate the chair.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) speaks at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on May 14, 2021. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) speaks at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on May 14, 2021. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Yet McCarthy had repeatedly said that all negotiation involves give and take and that he would insist on just two non-negotiables. Before raising the debt limit, he would insist on spending cuts and no tax increases.

“Everything else is open for negotiations,” he said.

Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), who opposed both the Limit, Save, Grow Act and the Fiscal Responsibility Act, praised McCarthy’s ability and character.

“He's a great leader. He keeps his word.”

Communication and inclusion are hallmarks of McCarthy’s approach, according to Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who chairs the Main Street Caucus.

“With Kevin McCarthy, you do get a sense that he is actually committed to having more of a membership-driven House, that the People's House will function best when the members who represent those people are an active part of the governance,” Johnson told The Epoch Times on June 2. McCarthy communicates almost daily with the leaders of the so-called Five Families, the major Republican House caucuses, Johnson said.

House Republican leaders echoed that praise.

“Since taking the majority in January, House Republicans have delivered win after win for the American people. Because of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s strong, effective leadership, we will continue to deliver on our Commitment to America in the coming months,” Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) told The Epoch Times.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), one of McCarthy’s lead negotiators on the debt ceiling deal, praised the speaker as a consensus builder.

“Without his focus and effort, without building consensus among House Republicans and being able to deliver on a bill that raised the debt ceiling, we would have been at the negotiating table,” McHenry told reporters on May 31.

“The man behind me is one of the best strategists I've ever seen in my life,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), McCarthy’s other lead negotiator, said at a May 31 news conference.

Next Up

Moments after the passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, McCarthy reflected on the achievement, acknowledging that it was an imperfect compromise.

“Is it everything I wanted? No. But sitting with one House with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president who didn't want to meet with us, I think we did pretty dang good for the American public,” he said.

“It wasn't an easy fight. I had people on both sides upset. But I was focused on you [the American people]. And I will stay focused on you. Because I'm waking up tomorrow going after everything we didn't get here today.”

He has until Jan. 3, 2025, to get the job done.

Jackson Richman contributed to this report.