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With debt limit deal in hand, McCarthy and Biden turn to task of selling it

Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other House Republicans leading debt-limit negotiations, speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 27, 2023.HAIYUN JIANG/NYT

WASHINGTON — A day after striking a deal in principle with President Joe Biden to suspend the debt limit, Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his leadership team began an all-out sales pitch on Sunday to rally Republicans behind a compromise that was drawing intense resistance from the hard right.

To get the legislation through a fractious and closely divided Congress, McCarthy and top Democratic leaders must cobble together a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate willing to back it. Members of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus have already declared war on the plan, which they say fails to impose meaningful spending cuts, and warned that they would seek to block it.


So after spending late nights and early mornings in recent days in feverish negotiations to strike the deal, which would suspend the debt ceiling for two years while cutting and capping some federal programs over the same period, proponents have turned their energies to ensuring it can pass in time to avert a default now projected on June 5.

“This is the most conservative spending package in my service in Congress, and this is my 10th term,” Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., a lead member of McCarthy’s negotiating team, said at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Sunday morning.

House Republicans circulated a one-page memo with 10 talking points about the conservative benefits of the deal, which was still being finalized and written into legislative text on Sunday, hours before it was expected to be released. The GOP memo asserted that the plan would cap government spending at 1 percent annually for six years — although the measure is only binding for two years — and noted that it would impose stricter work requirements for Americans receiving government benefits, cut $400 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for global health funding and eliminate funding for hiring new IRS agents in 2023.


Legislative text released Sunday evening also revealed that the bill includes expedited approvals for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project favored by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a key Democratic swing vote, and other West Virginia lawmakers.

The deal also includes some agreements not clearly included in the 99 pages of bill text.

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, as pitched negotiations over the debt limit continued on May 27, 2023. HAIYUN JIANG/NYT

Administration officials said Sunday that they had agreed to repurpose $10 billion of extra IRS money in each of the 2024 and 2025 fiscal years, which would be a loss of one-fourth of the $80 billion the agency received for enhanced services and enforcement as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.

But officials said in a call with reporters that they expected no disruptions whatsoever from the loss of that money in the short term. That is likely because all of the $80 billion from the 2022 law was appropriated at once, but the agency planned to spend it over eight years. Officials suggested the IRS might simply pull forward some of the money earmarked for later years, then return to Congress later to ask for more money.

“It doesn’t get everything everybody wanted,” McCarthy told reporters on Capitol Hill. “But, in divided government, that’s where we end up. I think it’s a very positive bill.”

Biden told reporters that he was confident the deal would reach his desk and that he spoke with McCarthy on Sunday afternoon “to make sure all the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted.”


“The agreement prevents the worst possible crisis, a default for the first time in our nation’s history,” Biden said later in the day, adding, “It also protects key priorities and accomplishments and values that congressional Democrats and I have fought long and hard for.”

Biden said it was an open question whether the deal would make it through Congress. “I have no idea whether he has the votes,” he said of McCarthy. “I expect he does.”

Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other House Republicans leading debt-limit negotiations, speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 27, 2023. HAIYUN JIANG/NYT

Still, the deal was facing harsh criticism from the wings of both political parties.

“Terrible policy, absolutely terrible policy,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” referring to the work requirements for food stamps and other public benefit programs. “I told the president that directly when he called me last week on Wednesday that this is saying to poor people and people who are in need that we don’t trust them.”

Jayapal, the chairperson of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she wanted to read the bill before she decided whether to support it.

Some on the right had already ruled out doing so before seeing the details.

“No one claiming to be a conservative could justify a YES vote,” Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., a member of the House Freedom Caucus, wrote on Twitter. Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., posted his reaction to news of the deal: a vomit emoji.

Russell T. Vought, former President Donald Trump’s influential former budget director who now runs the Center for Renewing America, encouraged right-wing Republicans to use their seats on the House Rules Committee — which McCarthy granted them as he toiled to win their votes to become speaker — to block the deal. “Conservatives should fight it with all their might,” he said.


Some Senate Republicans, who under that chamber’s rules have more tools to slow consideration of legislation, were also up in arms.

“No real cuts to see here,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said on Twitter. “Conservatives have been sold out once again!”

“With Republicans like these, who needs Democrats?” asked Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has vowed to delay the debt limit deal.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was also critical — although for a much different reason. He called the deal too stingy, demanding more robust military funding, particularly for the Navy.

Sen. Lindsey Graham at a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee oversight hearing on artificial intelligence on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 16, 2023. HAIYUN JIANG/NYT

“I am not going to do a deal that marginally reduces the number of IRS agents in the future at the expense of sinking the Navy,” Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.”

But McCarthy argued that Republican critics were a small faction.

“More than 95 percent of all those in the conference were very excited,” McCarthy, who briefed Republicans about the deal on Saturday night, said on Fox. “Think about this: We finally were able to cut spending. We’re the first Congress to vote for cutting spending year over year.”

The deal would essentially freeze federal spending that had been on track to grow, excluding military and veterans programs.


Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., an ally of McCarthy’s, said that House Republicans would overwhelmingly support the debt deal. He played down the right-wing revolt, claiming that leaders never expected certain House Freedom Caucus members to vote for it.

“When you’re saying that conservatives have concerns, it is really the most colorful conservatives,” Johnson said on “State of the Union,” pointing out that some Republicans even voted against a more conservative proposal to raise the debt ceiling. “Some of those guys you mentioned didn’t vote for the thing when it was kind of a Republican wish list.”

Still, it was clear McCarthy would need votes from Democrats to pass the measure through the House — and those might not prove easy to deliver, especially from the left wing in the House.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 28, 2023. HAIYUN JIANG/NYT

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said he was undecided about how to vote but expressed anger at the negotiations, which he compared to hostage-taking on the part of Republicans.

“None of the things in the bill are Democratic priorities,” Himes said on Fox. Himes said the legislation was not “going to make any Democrats happy.”

“But it’s a small enough bill that in the service of actually not destroying the economy this week may get Democratic votes,” he said.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the House minority leader, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he expected that “there will be Democratic support once we have the ability to actually be fully briefed by the White House.”

But he was clear that he did not like the position Democrats were in.

“We have to, of course, avoid a market crash. We have to avoid tanking the economy. We have to avoid a default,” Jeffries said. “The reason why we’re in this situation from the very beginning is that extreme MAGA Republicans made the determination that they were going to use the possibility of default to hold the economy and everyday Americans hostage.”