The Senate passage of an accord between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to raise the debt limit was not just a hard-fought victory for the Democratic and Republican leader, but the negotiators on both sides who spent many late nights haggling over the bill on behalf of their principals.
In an interview with Spectrum News, North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, one of McCarthy’s handpicked deputies on the bill, called it a “huge relief” to see the measure pass, particularly in such bipartisan fashion.
“Huge relief to actually see a bipartisan bill make its way through the House and Senate and get a presidential signature,” McHenry said, “And honored to be a part, even a small part of this big undertaking in divided government.”
The measure – which passed the Senate in a 63-36 vote Thursday night after advancing 314-117 in the House one day prior -- suspends the debt limit for two years in exchange for two years of spending caps and other provisions, including clawing back some COVID-19 funds and imposing new work requirements for older Americans receiving food aid.
McHenry, alongside Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, negotiated for weeks with Biden’s designated lieutenants on the measure: Steve Ricchetti, a counselor to the president and one of his most trusted advisers, Shalanda Young, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and a veteran of high-stakes congressional negotiations, and Louisa Terrell, Biden’s legislative affairs director.
Negotiations were start and stop in recent weeks, even taking a “pause” at one point in mid-May, as Graves called it. They worked grueling hours, operating on little sleep and stoked by coffee, bagel sandwiches and gummy worms. McHenry said that things got “quite tense” as negotiations got down to the wire.
“It was an overall intense, two weeks of negotiating,” he described, later adding: “The negotiations in the room were long, laborious, and at points about as tense as I've ever seen meetings can be.”
“I think there was eventually goodwill on both sides to see this thing through and achieve a compromise. But Republicans in the House, we passed a plan to raise the debt ceiling, and that was the basis of negotiations for a White House that didn't expect Republicans to be able to produce anything, and a Democrat Senate was unable to produce a piece of legislation.”
Republicans had initially demanded steep spending cuts in exchange for any bill to raise the debt limit, while Democrats and the White House refused to compromise on the country’s obligations and called for the debt ceiling to be lifted without conditions. McHenry said that the Biden administration had a “bad strategy” and were at a “disadvantage” going into talks.
He also indicated that there were “two or three major blow-ups that stopped negotiations” temporarily, which he said “made things more difficult to put back together.”
“But put back together we did,” McHenry added. “And we have a deal that I think puts in place fiscal restraint that is sufficient for Republicans to be proud of.”
While the bill passed in an overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion in the House, including two-thirds of Republicans in the chamber, it garnered more Democratic votes (165) than GOP votes (149) – and in the Senate, 31 of 48 present Senate Republicans voted against the bill. Some Republicans argued that the bill does not go far enough to cut spending.
“I'm sorry they're disappointed,” McHenry told Spectrum News. “I'm disappointed, too, that we don't have a Republican Senate and a Republican in the White House that wanted to put in place true fiscal reforms, to get our nation back on a sustainable path for the funding of our government and what our government does.”
“This is a compromise with a very liberal U.S. Senate controlled by Democrats and a very progressive, liberal president who wants to spend more money,” he continued, calling the accord “the best we can do” in a divided Washington.
What Republicans won in the bill, McHenry added, was a significant cut in federal spending, energy reform, additional work requirements for federal benefits and other priorities.
“These things are fundamentally conservative, without any liberal policy attached to it other than an increase in the debt ceiling for 18 months – not a bad package,” he said, adding that Republicans who backed the bill “should be proud” of their votes.
Some of the GOP backlash has included threats to remove McCarthy from the speakership, including from McHenry’s fellow North Carolina Republican Rep. Dan Bishop.
McHenry said that calls to removing McCarthy would “be a catastrophic mistake.”
“I think it'd be a catastrophic mistake for a Republican to take out this Republican Speaker, who has been quite successful in his first six months on the job,” McHenry said. “He's gotten more conservative policy enacted in a divided Washington than we've seen in a long, long time from Republican speaker.”
“I'm proud to work with Kevin McCarthy,” he continued. “I'm proud of the work that he's done as speaker, and anyone that would want to take him out, I think they're making a huge mistake. We have a narrow majority. And with two members that are unlikely to be in Congress in the coming weeks, that would take us down to a two-vote majority, and by taking Speaker McCarthy out that would take us to a one vote majority, which is a dangerous proposition.”