Kevin McCarthy hustles to lock down possible defectors as debt vote draws near

Speaker Kevin McCarthy is lining up Tuesday meetings with potential GOP defectors on his high-stakes debt limit plan as he and his leadership team race to lock down support ahead of a vote as soon as Wednesday.

GOP leaders are insisting they’ll take their bill to the floor this week without changes — despite grumbling from a half-dozen or so of their members about a slew of spending and tax provisions in the measure. McCarthy plans to sit down later on Tuesday with several Republicans who have lodged complaints as he and his leadership team push toward a floor vote.

“I feel good. I think we’ll get there,” House Budget Chair Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) said.

The GOP plan — which includes across-the-board spending cuts, stricter rules for social welfare programs and energy production incentives — has largely earned cheers across the conference despite zero expectation for it to become law. Republicans have nonetheless insisted that this week’s debt bill is their best chance to restart stagnant talks with President Joe Biden ahead of a deadline that could come as soon as June.

“You either govern, you lead, you put Kevin McCarthy in charge — or you turn it over to an incompetent president and an absent Senate leader who don’t seem to have any ideas right now, or at least are not willing to share them until they see ours,” House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said in an interview Monday.

Still, not everyone in the House GOP is ready to embrace the plan. Some conservatives have demanded McCarthy go further by repealing more of Democrats’ past spending bills. Republicans such as Reps. Eli Crane (Ariz.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Thomas Massie (Ky.) are all possible holdouts for that reason, according to people familiar with their thinking and public statements.

An even larger contingent of Republicans is rebelling against their leaders’ plan to roll back certain tax incentives — specifically for biodiesel — that threatens to hurt their home states’ bottom line. A group of those members, mostly from the Midwest, have demanded changes to the bill, with many telling leadership they remain undecided.

McCarthy met with one of those fence-sitters, Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), early Tuesday afternoon and plans to meet with others later in the day. At least one of those holdouts, Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.), said Tuesday he would submit an amendment to strike the parts of the bill that would repeal tax credits for biodiesel and other renewable energy sources.

Even so, GOP leaders have projected confidence in their ability to keep their conference together, avoiding a repeat of January’s floor drama as McCarthy toiled through 15 ballots to win the top gavel.

Leadership is taking the position that it’s this bill or nothing. One senior House Republican, familiar with the discussions, said Tuesday: “We got to present this as a binary choice, either you’re voting with Kevin or you’re voting against Kevin.”

McCarthy on Tuesday sidestepped a flurry of questions about whether he has the votes to pass the debt plan this week, as promised, or if he’ll have to make changes after all to try to flip several Republicans who are reluctant to publicly support the bill.

Instead, the California Republican kept his fire trained on Biden — raising doubts about whether the president would actually veto the House GOP bill, should it reach his desk. Biden’s administration issued a formal veto threat earlier Tuesday; in reality, he won’t face that choice because the bill is dead on arrival in the Senate.

“Isn’t that what he said about” Republican legislation that ended the formal status of the pandemic, McCarthy asked in response to questions about Biden’s veto threat. “I don’t know that anybody trusts his word.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Budget Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said he wouldn’t be surprised if Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is forced to break the debt-limit stalemate between McCarthy and Biden. Whitehouse predicted that the minority leader might get involved once pressure intensifies from Republican donors over relieving the economic pain of a potential default.

“At the end of the day, something will occur in the Senate. I just don’t think the conditions for that have yet been set,” he said. “Mitch McConnell has brokered deadlocks before, and I think that remains a possibility.”

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a pivotal McCarthy lieutenant, said as he left the speaker’s office Tuesday that he expects a vote on the debt plan on Wednesday. But Graves acknowledged that leadership is still working to lock down the votes required to avoid an embarrassing setback.

“We’re still talking,” Graves said when asked about flipping potential defectors.

Olivia Beavers, Caitlin Emma and Meredith Lee Hill contributed to this report.

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