Now comes the hard part: Getting the debt ceiling deal through Congress


Now comes the hard part. 

If you thought it was hard for President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to marshal a debt ceiling deal, wait to see if it’s even more challenging to advance the bill through Congress.

Both the president and speaker will test their powers of persuasion to line up the votes for the deal.

It’s pretty clear the wings of both parties – the far right and far left – are incensed about this pact.

No one truly knows how many yeas and nays there are for this plan until the House whip operations begin to hum as lawmakers roll back into Washington after an abbreviated Memorial Day recess. 

There have been multiple press calls, a few news conferences by the speaker outside his office, conference calls with lawmakers and remarks from Mr. Biden. But until everyone really huddles at the Capitol, the vote count is unclear. Especially after a whirlwind weekend of behind the scenes political intrigue and negotiations.

On its face, the bill should be able to pass. It earned the endorsement of the president, the speaker, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other prominent lawmakers. There is a wide, bipartisan swath of members in the middle who could vote to pass this plan – even if no one is truly excited about the measure. In fact, Fox was told that there could be a scenario where 240-270 members could vote yes – and maybe more.

But it is a delicate balance to find the right vote mixture for this parliamentary cocktail. There is a lot of potential for things to go wrong or for there to be a dramatic miscalculation on either side when relying on those across the aisle to provide the necessary votes. 

Telephone calls over a holiday weekend are one thing. But leaders want to look fellow lawmakers in the eye to understand where they really stand on the issue and if they can count on their vote.

Here’s the lead question for the GOP: Will conservative interest groups and outraged constituents begin to light up the phones at the Capitol, tearing into middle of the road Republicans for supporting the plan? There could be attrition on the right if those lawmakers take too much heat and walk away. 

Here’s the lead question for Democrats: In fact there are two: What exactly did they get out of this deal? And why should they be called upon to bail out Republicans who are in the majority?

This is why the stakes for miscalculation are high. Both sides will expect the other side to provide a certain number of votes.

McCarthy has significantly added to his political capital and bolstered his bona fides with Republican House members since the rocky vote for Speaker in January. So, this conversation may be a little different if the vote were coming say, back in late January or February. Therefore, McCarthy should be able to deliver a sizable chunk of votes from his conference. It’s unclear how many votes House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., can deliver. But in fairness, this is not really about Jeffries. This is about President Biden. He is the President. He is the leader of the party. It’s a problem if Mr. Biden can’t deliver the requisite votes to lug this across the finish line.

But like McCarthy, President Biden has political barnacles, too. His standing is weak in the polls. In fact, one of the most compelling arguments Mr. Biden could make to reluctant Democrats is ‘don’t tank my presidency and the economy’ by voting no.

And we probably would not even be discussing the political wattage of President Biden and McCarthy to cajole members to vote yes were it not for two factors. Democrats are blasé about Mr. Biden. McCarthy endured the longest race to become Speaker since 1859. 

This takes us back to the infamous vote on TARP (the Troubled Assets Relief Program) in late September 2008. President George W. Bush and Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress reluctantly decided to spend more than $700 billion to salvage the American economy and stave off a nationwide fiscal meltdown. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had a sizable chunk of Democrats who were willing to vote yes. But Mr. Bush could not deliver House Republicans. The GOP had fatigued of President Bush. The party abandoned their president. No one truly knew how many votes Republicans had. But they didn’t deliver their end of the bargain.

Could Democrats abandon President Biden here?

The original version of TARP was failing on the House floor. And the market cratered in synchronicity with the House vote. The Dow finally lost what was then a single-day record, down 777 points. 

Trust between the sides plummeted, too.

Yours truly asked McCarthy if he would withhold putting the debt limit bill on the floor until the market closed.

‘You spend a lot of time thinking of crazy stuff,’ responded McCarthy.

The other issue is just moving the bill from the House Rules Committee and onto the floor.

Nearly every piece of legislation which hits the House floor must first get a ‘rule’ from the Rules panel. The Rules Committee establishes how the House will handle a given piece of legislation. That includes time and if any amendments are in order. If the committee doesn’t adopt a rule – and if the House itself doesn’t approve the rule, then there’s no bill.

Most speakers have run the Rules Committee with an iron fist. But as part of his concessions to conservatives, McCarthy awarded three seats on the panel to firebrand conservatives whose views sometimes deviate from those of the Speaker: Reps. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., Chip Roy, R-Tex., and Thomas Massie, R-Ky. 

McCarthy namechecked Massie Sunday as he touted a provision to hold the line on appropriations bills pushed by Massie as an item in the legislation. In other words, if Massie scored his idea in the legislation, how could he oppose it?

But Norman and Roy seethed about the legislation.

Norman called the bill ‘idiotic.’ Roy characterized the legislation with less than salivating language. 

One senior House GOP source told Fox before McCarthy touted the Massie language that they believed that ‘Massie is the most likely to vote for the rule in committee and on the floor.’ But if all three balk, Republicans will need a Democrat on the Rules Committee to vote in favor of jettisoning the measure to the floor.

No rule, no bill. 

The Rules Committee has not failed to approve a rule in its panel in recent memory. Once in a blue moon, a member of the majority has a problem with the bill at hand or the rule itself. So rather than vote nay, those members simply ‘take a walk’ or are mysteriously absent from the committee meeting.

Late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., sat on the Rules Committee in the 1960s. In his biography ‘Man Of the House,’ O’Neill recounts how he and future Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Delaney, D-N.Y., broke ranks with their party and voted no on an education bill in the early 1960s. Such a move is rare.

No one Fox asked could track down any recent instance of any minority member ever voting to support a rule in order to help the majority put a bill on the floor. 

This all makes for a very interesting Rules Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon. 

So, will they have the votes?

This is reminiscent of the legendary Life cereal commercials in the 1970s and 1980s.

Three brothers are sitting at the breakfast table, pushing a bowl of Life cereal around, refusing to eat it. 

‘I’m not going to try it. You try it!,’ says one boy.

Finally, they push the bowl in front of the most finicky bother of all. Mikey. 

‘Let’s get Mikey,’ says one brother. ‘He hates everything.’

Suddenly, Mikey begins to devour the cereal.

‘He likes it!’ exclaims one brother. 

The taste test, complete, they all dig in.

This bill is kind of like the Life cereal commercial. Some members are reluctant to vote for the bill until they see someone else vote for it first.

The only difference is that Mikey actually liked the cereal he was eating. This legislation isn’t nearly as pleasing to the political palette.

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