The Political Center Flexed on the Debt Bill. It Might Not Last

  • Moderates from both parties got the deal over the finish line
  • Similar accords on more divisive issues still look unlikely

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The outer wings of each party often draw the most attention. But in the debt ceiling fight, the vast swath in the middle carried the day.

Confirmation first came in the 314-117 House vote Wednesday night to approve a debt ceiling compromise between President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and move it to the Senate, where a similar bipartisan fate played out in a 63-36 vote Thursday night.

While lawmakers on each flank railed against the bill, a broad majority between the political poles gritted their teeth and passed it. For a day or two, there was accord — at least when the alternative was an unprecedented default and economic calamity.

“This budget agreement is a bipartisan compromise. Neither side got everything it wanted. That’s the responsibility of governing,” Biden said in a statement late Wednesday night.

But the deal appears unlikely to become a template for more compromises in a bitterly divided era. It was helped by the unique stakes of the debt fight and a relatively modest resolution, and it still might leave McCarthy with political wounds that could push him away from further agreements. The right wing is furious with the speaker for advancing a bill that got more votes from Democrats than Republicans.

“Kevin McCarthy continues to have to look over his shoulder at his very extreme, ultra-MAGA right flank, and so that will make reaching other deals more complicated,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “Are there other issues or examples where he would be willing to forge a bipartisan group that gets to yes? I have real doubts about that.”

Still, for some lawmakers it was a rare moment of good feeling.

(Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) walks to House chamber to vote on debt limit bill on May 31.

The vote “is actually a good demonstration of what’s possible when we come together,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a moderate Democrat from the Minneapolis suburbs who credited the bill’s passage to the “the reasonable, massive middle.”

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), said the deal shows there’s “some room for compromise” though he quickly noted that any good feelings could quickly evaporate “in the vortex of an election.”

Lawmakers in the Freedom Caucus (on the right) and Congressional Progressive Caucus (on the left) drew red lines and held news conferences listing reasons to oppose the bill. Yet pragmatist factions such as the Republican Main Street Partnership, New Democrats, and bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus drove the plan toward the desk of a president who’s often nostalgic for an era of congressional cooperation.

The center-left New Democrats voted 89-6 in favor. Among Problem Solvers it was 57-3. All five Democrats who represent districts won by Donald Trump voted for the bill, as did 17 of 18 Republicans in districts that Biden carried. (The lone exception: scandal-scarred Rep. George Santos, of New York).

Even a majority of the Congressional Progressive Caucus supported the plan: They voted 60-40 in favor.

‘Nuclear Event’

Yet after seeing Congress go to the brink of catastrophe, others saw the weeks-long drama over a basic responsibility as another sign of political dysfunction.

“That’s about the height of our bipartisanship – when faced with a nuclear event,” cracked Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

Progressive Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said the deal signaled to Republicans that they can use the debt ceiling again and again to extract concessions. He opposed the measure.

“There’s a reason when you go camping they tell you not to feed the bears,” Huffman said. “Even if you give them a little marshmallow, something really bad is gonna happen.”

And while the consequences of failure were high, the deal isn’t much of a landmark. Independent analysts say it will make a relatively small change in the country’s fiscal trajectory. This wasn’t a breakthrough on a divisive issue such as immigration or gun laws. Instead, facing a firm deadline, Congress agreed on averting disaster.

“This is political terrorists deciding to burn down the country if they don’t get their way, versus a party that sees their role as being engaged in responsible governance,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

If your neighbor, he added, “threatens to burn down your house and then at the last minute doesn’t burn it down because you paid them off, you don’t celebrate a new era of good relations.”

Food Fight

At least one prominent issue in the debt fight — around work requirements for nutritional aid programs — could return in haggling over the upcoming Farm Bill, and this time there won’t be a looming economic concern to force a deal.

Progressives hammered the new requirements attached to the debt bill for food aid and other anti-poverty initiatives, pointing out that the measure required no new sacrifices from wealthy taxpayers.

Conservatives said the GOP missed a chance to force a more lasting change to the country’s economic course. Some are eyeing McCarthy with renewed suspicion.

Biden, who has promised to inch the country away from extremes, probably won’t mind a deal that angers the outer edges of both parties and puts him in the middle of a bipartisan agreement.

Even if it’s likely one of the last major compromises expected before next year’s election.

Greg Giroux in Washington also contributed to this story.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Tamari at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: George Cahlink at; Bennett Roth at

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