Band of Democrats Readies McCarthy Lifeline for a Moderate Debt Compromise

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

(Bloomberg) -- A band of moderate House Democrats is preparing to help rescue House Speaker Kevin McCarthy should he forge a bipartisan deal to avert a US default that sparks a revolt by ultra-conservatives.

Most Read from Bloomberg

The offer is purely hypothetical at the moment but at least 10 Democrats are ready to cross party lines to back him retaining his post as speaker if Republican hard-liners try to oust McCarthy in the aftermath of a debt-limit deal, said Representative Dean Phillips, who is involved in the effort.

“There’s a loosely knitted group of Democrats that would reward a show of courage by the speaker, if it came to that,” the Minnesota congressman said, adding that people close to McCarthy have “been made aware” the contingency is available.

It’s unclear how tenable McCarthy’s position within the Republican party would be if he had to rely on even a slender segment of the opposition party to remain in power.

Former Republican Speaker John Boehner chose to resign in 2015, despite getting similar Democratic offers of assistance, as he faced a potential no confidence challenge to his leadership from more than 40 members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

A McCarthy spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Aiding McCarthy poses danger for the Democrats too. A vote in favor of a Republican speaker would forever remain on their records and could become a weapon in a future primary challenge. That is a risk some moderates are willing to take.

The speaker hasn’t demonstrated any signs so far of reaching for the Democratic moderates’ offer. In his public comments, McCarthy has stuck to the demands Republicans unified behind last month, even as he alternates between criticizing President Joe Biden and expressing optimism the two can make a deal.

But the point is to create options for the speaker as the nation barrels closer to a first-ever debt default with catastrophic consequences for the economy. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the nation may not be able to make payments on all its debts by June 1 without action from Congress to raise the legal debt limit.

McCarthy is maneuvering through the debt-limit confrontation from an unusually perilous position for a House leader.

As a condition of being selected speaker in January, McCarthy agreed to a change House rules enabling any disgruntled lawmaker to demand a vote to oust him.

With Republicans only narrowly in control, the defection of only five ultra-conservatives could topple him — unless some Democrats break the tradition of party-line votes on House leadership elections and step in to help. McCarthy.

For now, hard-line House conservatives say they aren’t worried McCarthy will back away from debt-limit demands they have insisted upon.

“He knows where his support is, and it’s not on the Democratic side,” Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina said.

Phillips does not dispute that Democrats crossing party lines to help preserve McCarthy’s speakership might generate anger from within their own party.

But he says, “I think the country would be well served by a moment like that,” Phillips said, casting that scenario as promoting political courage and compromise.

Others also suggested McCarthy could count on significant backing from Democrats against a challenge based on a deb-limit compromise, including the party’s former long-time No. 2 leader, Representative Steny Hoyer, who is well-networked among moderates.

“I think there would be,” Hoyer said in a brief Capitol hallway interview. “I think there would be opposition to those seeking to destabilize the institution.”

Representative John Larson, another former Democratic leader, said he’d even be inclined to himself oppose a theoretical effort by McCarthy’s right flank to oust him after cutting a debt deal compromise.

“I’d want to know the circumstances of what had happened, but my opinion is that no 15 or 25 people should be the tail that wags the dog,” Larson said, referring to ultra-conservative who might oust McCarthy. “This is too big a thing for our country.”

--With assistance from Anna Edgerton.

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.