The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Crunch Week on the Debt Ceiling


It is hard to understate just how close the U.S. is to hitting the debt ceiling.

There are talks – again. But no agreement. No bill. Nothing close as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen reiterated on NBC that the ‘hard’ deadline was June 1. Yellen added that the government would struggle to pay its bills beyond June 15 if Congress doesn’t take action.

So how do the sides sidestep an epic collision with the debt ceiling?

At least one Republican lawmaker with whom Fox spoke suggested that the government was rushing on cruise control toward the debt limit – and Congress was past the point of no return of a crisis. 

‘There is too much to do and too little time if the date is June 1,’ said the lawmaker who asked they not be identified. ‘No way.’

How President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., bridge this chasm is unclear. Observers note that negotiations this intense should have been underway at least in April – with the expectation the sides would hit hiccups like the ones on Friday. That pause cost the sides nearly three days of talks. And anyone who has watched negotiations like these know that those speedbumps are inevitable.

It’s possible there could be more. That’s why they may not have enough time to wrap this up.

To wit:

Let’s just say there is a deal by Tuesday. It likely takes until Thursday to get the legislative text into form. McCarthy insists he will adhere to the House’s ’72 hour rule.’ That allows Members to study and consider the bill. It also means the House may not even debate and vote on the bill until the coming weekend.

Therefore, the Senate may not even get the legislation until Monday, May 29th – Memorial Day. Even if the Senate is really humming, that could take until Wednesday, May 31st to wrap things up. But more likely, June 1 or 2.

And remember, this is the timeline if everything goes swimmingly.

But what we’ve left out of this analysis are the potential contours of a deal – to say nothing of what it takes to get the votes to pass such a package.

Here we go.

It’s about the math.

Mixing the cocktail of Republican and Democratic votes to pass a still theoretical bill through the House (and the Senate – we’ll get to that at some point) involves very precise, yet mysterious political alchemy. House Republicans have long talked about wanting a ‘a majority of the majority’ to be in favor of any prospective package. That concept goes back decades with House Republicans. But this is 2023. Plus, McCarthy endured the longest Speaker’s race since 1859 to get the job. 

How does McCarthy agree to any pact which doesn’t have close to 200 of the 222 Republicans in the House in favor of it?

It’s likely that anywhere from 20 to 40 House Republicans are hard noes on any bill which doesn’t replicate the debt ceiling bill muscled through last month. 

Fox is told McCarthy’s floor is 180 GOP yeas. One knowledgeable source told Fox that anything south of 180 could mean a conservative Republican files a motion to ‘vacate the chair’ and force a vote for Speaker in the middle of the Congress.

This has always been the concern for the Speaker. Can he accept a deal which may put his own political career in jeopardy? Or, is there a way to finesse this so everyone believes they’ve secured a win?

This begs the question about what coalition of House Democrats would support a plan? How many Democrats can House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., provide or afford to lose? However, this conversation is not really about Jeffries. It’s about President Biden. The President faces liberal Members demanding he just use the ’14th Amendment’ (which says that federal public debts shall not be in question) and conclude the argument. Progressives are leery of President Biden giving up too much – especially on domestic spending and work requirements for those receiving welfare benefits. 

Who exactly is going to be willing to walk the plank to get this done or hold true to their principles?

Here’s another challenge for McCarthy: the House’s debt ceiling bill could pose a problem in the negotiations.

President Biden withheld from negotiations until the House approved its bill – albeit one which secured zero Democratic votes and has no chance of overcoming a filibuster in the Democratically-controlled Senate. 

However, there is something worth noting about the House GOP’s debt ceiling bill. Passage of that measure was McCarthy’s greatest accomplishment since clasping the Speaker’s gavel. He had little to stand on in these negotiations had the House not approved the Republican package. But passage of that measure could also box in McCarthy. 

Fox is told that more and more House Republicans refuse to budge from that bill. McCarthy pushed so hard to get lawmakers to agree to that package that many are reluctant to accept anything short of that measure.

Moreover, McCarthy isn’t former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Pelosi often designed legislation to score the necessary matrix of votes. One senior House Republican told Fox last week that McCarthy is more ‘big picture’ and hands off. He wants the membership to reach consensus first. He defers to them.

That may work internally. But a debt ceiling accord must be something which President Biden and at least some Democrats can accept. Otherwise, it’s just a debate among Republicans. 

This brings us to the quintessence of ‘the math.’ The vote counting surrounding the House GOP’s April debt ceiling bill is the centerpiece. How many Republicans are married to that bill? How many can go for something less than that bill? That will dictate where this debate heads over the next few days. 

Now, let’s go back to timing.

The casual observer may believe that lawmakers are all hunkered down in Washington until they find a solution. That’s not the case. Only few were in DC over the weekend. The House of Representatives is in session this week – but scheduled for a recess next week. So what happens if it gets to the weekend and there is no legislative traffic on the debt ceiling? Do Republicans keep the House in session or do they cut everyone loose until there is something to vote on?

This slices two ways. 

Congressional leaders could apply ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ tactics to convince members to vote yes. In other words, hold everyone ‘captive’ in Washington until they come around and vote yes. But that could mean torching part of the House’s recess – to say nothing of various Memorial Day activities lawmakers love to attend back home.

It is generally thought keeping everyone in DC could help leaders. It makes it easier to count and track where the votes lie. However, Fox is told that holding everyone in Washington could stir dissent if some Republicans don’t like the plan McCarthy ultimately cobbles together with Mr. Biden. 

A surefire way to tick off Members and make them even more grumpy? Keep everyone here over a holiday weekend and blow up part of the recess – with nothing to vote on. 

It’s unclear which path the sides may take.

But what if there’s nothing to vote on? 

That spells trouble as the country hurtles toward the June 1 debt ceiling deadline. 

Chad Pergram currently serves as a senior congressional correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in September 2007 and is based out of Washington, D.C.

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