Centrists Sacrificing Democratic Leverage with Plot to Save McCarthy, Progressives Say

Pres. Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) depart the U.S. Capitol Friends of Ireland Luncheon March 17, 2023.


(Drew Angerer/Getty)

An offer by ostensibly moderate Democrats to help Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) retain the gavel in exchange for raising the debt ceiling risks killing any leverage Democrats currently hold in debt limit negotiations, progressives are warning behind the scenes. But at least one progressive member of Congress is willing to entertain the idea.

President Joe Biden, who has said he won’t negotiate on raising the debt limit, has been at an impasse for weeks with McCarthy. Republicans have insisted on tying a debt-limit increase to steep cuts to social safety net programs.

Without an increase in the debt limit, the U.S. could risk defaulting on its debts as soon as June 1, which would send economic shockwaves around the world.

Some Democrats in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus reportedly have discussed throwing McCarthy a lifeline if he agrees to raise the debt limit under terms that the MAGA members of his conference find untenable. In this scenario, if MAGA members sought to punish McCarthy by stripping him of the speakership, the unidentified Democrats would step in and vote for him as reward for hiking the debt limit. While the proponents of the pitch have not gone public, and the idea remains a nonstarter for Democratic leadership, it appears to be gaining traction.

“We’ll protect [McCarthy] if he does the right thing,” one House Democrat told Politico. And progressive Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) told TYT “every conceivable option to avoid defaulting on the debt has to be on the table.”

But according to a staffer who spoke with TYT on the condition of anonymity, much of the chatter stems from ostensibly moderate members who want to be seen as dealmakers in order to “highlight their bipartisan bona fides” and get attention.

“I think there are a couple of [members], especially in the Problem Solvers Caucus, that believe they're solving a problem by sacrificing the leverage that Democrats hold right now,” said the source. “And I think that the progressive stance is very clear in that we don't negotiate over [the] debt ceiling.”

That same sentiment was echoed on Wednesday by an official at a leading progressive organization who also asked not to be named and called the strategy “disappointing.”

“[W]hen you look at the makeup of the Problem Solvers Caucus, there are a lot of corporate-backed, quote-unquote, Democrats, but they're not frontliners. They don't represent districts that are particularly vulnerable,” said the official. “And the front-lining Democrats [...] are not the ones that you hear and see cutting side deals with Republicans to kick millions of people off of food assistance and health care, like, that's ridiculous."

Republicans are pushing a deal to gut funding for programs that many low-income families depend on, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and housing assistance, in exchange for raising the debt limit – something the Biden administration has said it will not negotiate on. Discussions around avoiding default and balancing the budget are happening simultaneously, however.

Despite the not-so-undercover plan to save McCarthy, the progressive organization official says that “by and large” Democrats remain “extremely united” on the debt ceiling fight.

“[T]hey're holding the line very strongly about a clean debt ceiling increase, and at the very least protecting as much of these vital programs from being cut as possible,” the official said.

But as the clock winds down to avoid going into default, at least some Democratic lawmakers seem increasingly receptive to taking a more “by any means necessary” approach.

“[A]t this point, every conceivable option to avoid defaulting on the debt has to be on the table,” said Johnson, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. And that includes the plan to save McCarthy. “I think it's an initiative that is working its way through as are other initiatives. And our overall goal is, of course, to avoid a default on the nation's debt.”

If McCarthy actually took the deal, it could lead to an extraordinary scenario in which the nation would see Democrats cast their votes for McCarthy to lead the House just five months after McCarthy needed 15 rounds of votes to get far-right Republicans to hand him the speakership.

What the nation is not seeing at the moment, is a concerted public campaign targeting ostensibly centrist Republicans.

According to the Hill staffer, there’s a general consensus that Democratic “leadership should be leaning on” at least 18 vulnerable Republicans in swing districts. That said, the staffer said it’s “very likely” that pressure on vulnerable House Republicans is being applied behind the scenes.

One possible element of that pressure: On Wednesday, House Budget Committee Ranking Member Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) filed a discharge petition to force a vote on raising the debt ceiling – without Republican budget cuts. That could force Republicans to go on the record with their votes.

There’s currently no indication that any of the swing district Republicans are willing to budge, according to the Hill source. But there are “rumblings” that some of those members find going into default to be too dangerous.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) told TYT that Republicans refusing to raise the debt ceiling are refusing to pay their own bills, because Republicans are responsible for much of the debt.

“I think there are a number of House Republicans that understand this, but aren’t willing yet to cross the Speaker on this,” said Khanna.

TYT Washington Correspondent Candice Cole was previously a correspondent and senior White House producer for the Black News Channel and has worked at a number of local news outlets. You can find her on Twitter @CandiceColeNews.