Senate Republicans say they’re happy to sit out the fight over raising the debt ceiling and cede the negotiations to their colleagues in the House — at least for now.
After a bruising year-end battle to pass the omnibus government spending package; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) using up a large chunk of political capital to help Democrats raise the debt ceiling in 2021; and Republicans taking control of the House, McConnell and members of the Senate GOP caucus neither need nor want to lead the current talks.
And they believe that House Republicans are in a solid position to win concessions that members in the Democrat-controlled upper chamber could not deliver.
They applauded McConnell saying earlier this week that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Republicans will be the ones dealing directly with the White House in debt talks.
“The public is on the side of doing something. … Until we’re clear on what we’re going to do, I’m glad the House is taking that on. I think there will be many of us in the Senate who will welcome that,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) told reporters.
“We haven’t taken the leadership here to do anything about it and I think that they’re clear. … That’ll be a tricky negotiation over there because someone’s ox is going to get gored along the way,” he added.
But Senate Republicans are still closely watching the talks, waiting to see if McCarthy can unite his narrow majority around a deal and whether that deal is palatable.
A large part of the reason GOP senators are stepping back is simple political reality. Republicans control the House and thus have a better chance of moving their priorities in that chamber.
But part of it is political capital. After years of McConnell taking the lead on talks, the Kentucky Republican spent much of his in the past year-and-a-half to get the omnibus spending bill over the finish line last month and the debt ceiling raised at the end of 2021.
Both deals prompted blowback and frustration within the Senate GOP, especially the 2021 debt ceiling fight. McConnell said that October that he would not help Democrats raise the borrowing limit again and called for them to do so via budget reconciliation. However, he backtracked on those remarks and cobbled together the needed votes to do just that less than two months later.
Given that history, Republicans are happy to allow McCarthy to serve as the chief negotiator this go-around and try his hand at securing concessions from Democrats.
“I think the reason he’s taken that position this time around is because he understands that with the Republican House and the Democratic White House, you’re not going to get anything through the Senate that hasn’t been signed off by a Republican House or be willing to get a signature by a Democratic president,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said of McConnell.
“This is a divided government. … Ultimately, that’s where I think the negotiation needs to start,” Thune added.
However, there remains consternation on the Senate GOP side concerning how their House counterparts will ultimately handle these talks.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters this week that he doesn’t “know what page they’re on” when asked if he’s on the same wavelength as the House GOP.
As part of his bid to win over detractors in his party to win the Speaker’s gavel, McCarthy promised to make spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. But House Republicans haven’t said where those cuts should come from, and there is said to be disagreement among the members.
Adding to the uncertainty, McCarthy — unlike McConnell, with whom the president served in the Senate — hasn’t swung deals over the years with Biden. He did, however, lay down a marker on Thursday as he told Donald Trump Jr., that Republicans “won’t touch Medicare or Social Security” amid speculation they might attempt to do just that.
When Biden and McCarthy will engage in substantial discussions remains very much up in the air. Although Biden has indicated that he is ready to sit down with the newly minted GOP Speaker, the White House has insisted that the debt ceiling is not up for negotiation.
Speaking in Virginia on Thursday, Biden laid into House Republicans who are calling to reform the pair of entitlement programs, panning them for creating “chaos” with their efforts.
“They want to cut your Social Security, Medicare. Now, this is the God’s truth,” Biden said. “It’s almost unbelievable.”
The president’s call has been backed up by other Democratic leaders, but not all rank-and-file members believe it is realistic.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who met with McCarthy on Wednesday, argued that the White House’s stance is “unreasonable.” The West Virginia centrist has, however, made clear that he too will not accept cuts to Social Security or Medicare.
Even with the ballgame out of their hands for the time being, Senate GOP members say they think their colleagues across the Capitol complex can strike a deal that wins support in the upper chamber.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a default,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told The Hill. “I think there’s enough folks over there that understand how significant that is.”
“It’s a matter of having a discussion about how we go down the path of reducing the amount of debt we’re incurring.“ Rounds added. “Now, what is palatable to them is yet to be determined, but I think there are some folks over there that would like the opportunity to have the discussion right now — and now’s as good a time as any to have that discussion.”