McConnell could be key to Biden strategy of splitting GOP on debt ceiling

Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell
President Joe Biden shakes hands with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., after speaking about his infrastructure agenda under the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, Jan. 4, 2023, in Covington, Ky. By temperament and manner, Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell are decidedly mismatched. But as the days of divided government under Biden begin, their long relationship will become even more vital. McConnell’s experience in cutting deals and the political capital he retains among his members could leave him much freer to negotiate thorny matters with the White House. <i>Patrick Semansky/AP </i>

McConnell could be key to Biden strategy of splitting GOP on debt ceiling

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Divide and conquer may be the White House’s new strategy for dealing with congressional Republicans on the debt ceiling.

President Joe Biden insists that he won’t negotiate on extending the federal government’s borrowing limit and that House Republicans need to present their own budget blueprint before they can have any wider conversation about spending cuts.

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But Biden’s team has certainly exploited the vacuum left by the delay in the House GOP budget proposal, filling it with the spending cuts outlined by the Freedom Caucus, a conservative faction of lawmakers.

Not only does this help generate negative publicity for what Republicans are trying to accomplish, but it also may serve to divide congressional Republicans, some of whom don’t want to be seen as going as far as the Freedom Caucus when it comes to federal spending levels.

Other Republicans have disagreements about what kind of cuts should be on the table in the first place. Some say that defense spending and the major entitlement programs, especially Social Security and Medicare, should be off-limits. Others contend this exempts too much federal spending to be a serious approach to getting the nation’s fiscal house in order.

The White House already tried a version of what it is doing with the Freedom Caucus ahead of the midterm elections when it got many Republicans to distance themselves from a plan to sunset federal legislation offered by Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), who was then chairing the Senate GOP’s campaign arm.

From the Biden administration’s perspective, the strategy worked. Republicans actually lost a Senate seat under highly favorable political circumstances. The alleged effects of Scott’s plan on Social Security and Medicare weren’t the sole, or even most important, reason for the GOP’s underwhelming performance. But they were a factor.

Biden nevertheless has to work with Republicans to some extent. They control the House and hold just under half the Senate. A default on the debt would have economic ramifications that are just as troubling for Biden’s reelection in 2024 as they are for the GOP congressional ranks.

The White House has sparred with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) but has also kept the door open. Biden has called McCarthy a good man. “There’s no reason we can’t find common ground,” the president said at a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon with the speaker. “There’s no reason why we can’t hope to change this direction of extremism both our parties are pushing. I think it’s important.”

Biden has at times cast McCarthy as a captive of a small number of “MAGA” Republicans who supply the winning margin in the narrow House majority. But it is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in whom the White House may be investing its hopes.

Biden and McConnell were Senate colleagues for 24 years. McConnell became the upper chamber’s majority leader after eight years as minority leader while Biden was conducting Capitol Hill outreach as vice president under then-President Barack Obama. The two have worked together on some bipartisan initiatives since Biden became president.

McConnell supported the bipartisan infrastructure law, a semiconductors law, toxic burn pits legislation, and Biden’s modest gun control legislation. McCarthy opposed most of these. Without these measures, Biden’s record of legislative achievement would mostly be limited to a pair of big spending bills advanced on a partisan basis through special Senate rules under which only Democratic voters were needed.

Now, there is no possibility of reconciliation because McCarthy has the gavel. McConnell may hold the keys once again. Many House Republicans fault the longtime Kentucky lawmaker for allowing through the omnibus, making the debt ceiling standoff House Republicans’ first real opportunity to have an influence on spending levels. Former President Donald Trump often stirs up the GOP base against McConnell.

“I think McConnell will defer to McCarthy on what the House strategy is and allow [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer to stew in his own juices for a while,” Republican strategist John Feehery said. “I don’t think he needs to ride to the rescue any time soon.”

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While House Republicans were gearing up for a protracted fight over the speakership, Biden and McConnell made a rare public appearance together in Kentucky.

“We disagree on a lot of things, but here’s what matters: He’s a man of his word,” Biden said of McConnell at the time. The president may need to count on that as things come to a head this summer.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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