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House to vote on McCarthy-Biden compromise debt deal, a key test for speaker

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy projected confidence Tuesday, saying he has the votes to pass a compromise piece of legislation to raise the debt ceiling.
Kevin Dietsch
Getty Images
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy projected confidence Tuesday, saying he has the votes to pass a compromise piece of legislation to raise the debt ceiling.

Updated May 31, 2023 at 11:53 AM ET

After weeks of negotiations between the White House and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the House is set to vote Wednesday night on a compromise bill to lift the debt ceiling, as lawmakers race against the clock to avoid an unprecedented default that could come as early as June 5.

The bipartisan dealwould pair a suspension of the debt limit for nearly two years to a package of spending cuts. It would establish spending caps for the federal budget while also making policy changes, including: adjustments to work requirements for some federal assistance programs like food stamps, a claw-back of unspent COVID-19 funds and an overhaul of permitting reviews for energy projects.

The 99-page bill appears to be on track to pass, albeit with significant defections from the right and left. It cleared a key procedural hurdle Tuesday evening after it advanced through the House Rules Committee by a vote of 7-6.

House Republicans emerged from a closed-door conference meeting late Tuesday night signaling the "majority of the majority" of their conference will ultimately support the bill.

The bill's passage, and any fallout from members of his conference, is one of McCarthy's first major tests as speaker.

On Tuesday, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus slammed the deal, arguing it doesn't go far enough on spending cuts and doesn't align closely enough with abill they passed in April.

"No matter what happens, there is going to be a reckoning," Texas Rep. Chip Roy told reporters at an afternoon press conference with the caucus.

Comments from the caucus opened up questions about whether members' displeasure over the bill could lead to a motion to vacate — a concession McCarthy made in January in his quest to become speakerthat allows any one House member to offer a resolution to remove the speaker.

McCarthy and his allies say the bill is the best possible deal conservatives could get in divided government and McCarthy has said he is "not at all" worried about an effort to take away his gavel.

What happened behind closed doors seems to have tamped down a possible ousting of McCarthy as speaker

McCarthy and members of his negotiating team defended the deal to members of the conference during a closed-door meeting Tuesday night.

South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace said the speaker's arguments weren't convincing.

"It didn't change my heart or my mind because I know where the American people are. The American people want to see us cut spending. This bill does not do that," she said as she left the meeting. She said talk of a motion to vacate the speaker is "premature."

Two of the most vocal opponents of McCarthy's role in the deal, Roy and fellow Freedom Caucus member Dan Bishop of North Carolina, wouldn't discuss McCarthy's future as speaker with reporters.

Other Freedom Caucus members were blunt about their disappointment with the deal, but said that didn't reflect on the speaker himself.

Tennessee Rep. Andy Ogles, one of the conservative holdouts who opposed McCarthy's speakership in January, said he has been "very pleased" with McCarthy's leadership.

"Not being happy with the deal or trying to make the deal better is not a reflection on McCarthy," Ogles said. "It's a reflection on the specifics of the package."

South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, another Freedom Caucus member who initially held out against McCarthy, said discussions about a motion to vacate were unfair to the speaker.

"To threaten to kick him out now, that's not right," he said.

But he added if the bill passes with more Democratic votes than Republican votes on Wednesday, "that's going to be a problem."

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, said he was confident the bill would get a majority of Republican votes and called the motion to vacate a "terrible idea."

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene told reporters she "came into town undecided" but plans to vote to support the bill. She praised the deal's spending cuts: "Absolutely amazing. Nowhere have we been able to do that this far, especially when we control this Congress with just a handful of seats."

Rep. Thomas Massie, who was key in advancing the bill through the Rules Committee, said he told members in the meeting that he was glad they had "three days to read the bill because it took me 2.5 to get to yes."

"This is probably the first bill in 10 years that I've ever been able to vote for that actually does cut spending. In the Rules Committee, we had a hearing — I asked every Democrat, every Republican who testified, does it cut spending? They all know that it does. So it's the first chance in 10 years, I'm not missing it," the Kentucky Republican told NPR.

He said the private meeting "put a big wet blanket on the motion to vacate," noting he heard members stand up and say they wouldn't vote for the bill but do support McCarthy as speaker.

"Look, I was a part of all three efforts to get rid of [former Speaker] John Boehner. I co-wrote that motion to vacate with Mark Meadows," he said. "It's framed and on my wall. There are at least eight 'whereas' clauses that describe a long train of grievances, OK? There's not a long train of grievances [here]. You don't punch the umpire in the first inning, right? Like, OK, you didn't like the call. Get in there and play ball and then we'll find out if the ump is any good or not."

Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, another member of the Freedom Caucus, agreed — saying although he's a no on the bill, McCarthy's "the guy that we're with. We're going to roll with him."

"Listen, I don't always have to be happy with the coach," he said. "I just think that this call with this bill is not the right one."

Democrats will support the bill — the question is by what margin?

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries held a caucus meeting with White House negotiators Wednesday morning and told reporters afterward that he made it clear to his members he supports the bill "without hesitation, reservation or trepidation."

"Not because it's perfect," he added. "But in divided government, we of course cannot let perfect be the enemy of the good."

Although it's expected that a bloc of moderate Democrats will support the bill, Jeffries signaled Tuesday that members could wait on the floor to see how many Republicans support it before offering up their votes.

"What we all are interested in is how many votes are the Republicans – who negotiated this resolution – going to produce. Initially, we heard that 95% of the House Republican conference supports this agreement. That doesn't appear to be the case," he said. "It's my expectation that House Republicans will keep their commitment to produce at least two-thirds of their conference, which is approximately 150 votes."

Jeffries said McCarthy has not asked him for a specific number of pledged Democratic votes.

"Democrats are committed to making sure we do our part and avoid a default," he said.

Just as conservative Republicans have qualms about the compromise legislation, so do Democrats, who are trying to stomach the bill's new work requirements and environmental provisions. On Tuesday, several members told NPR they weren't sure how they would vote on Wednesday.

"I have very, very serious concerns," said Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who serves as ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I have talked to people from the White House. They know what my concerns are," she said Tuesday afternoon. "Many concerns — but there's another 24 hours."

Certainly I think it's going to galvanize many of us to ensure that we win back the majority in '24.

New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill, who represents a suburban swing district, said she would vote for the bill to avoid a "catastrophic" default.

She said the bill "unfortunately was not everything we would have written if we had had the majority," but the product of a "good negotiation."

"Certainly I think it's going to galvanize many of us to ensure that we win back the majority in '24," she added.

NPR's Vincent Acovino contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.