White House aides privately estimate they may need to deliver as many as 100 Democratic votes to ensure an eventual debt limit deal can pass the narrowly divided House, two people familiar with the matter told POLITICO.
The informal projection is driven by lingering doubts among Biden officials over House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ability to convince the vast majority of Republicans to back a bipartisan agreement — and the expectation that dozens of the GOP’s most conservative members are poised to rebel against any sign of a compromise.
Top Democrats have long anticipated that a debt ceiling deal would require some level of Democratic support, with Biden stressing for days that any viable solution to the standoff must be bipartisan. And with negotiators still haggling over specifics of a legislative compromise, the people familiar with the matter cautioned it’s still too early to tell exactly how many Democrats will be needed to help McCarthy secure a majority, or even if a deal will be reached.
But the realization that the party might need to supply a sizable percentage of the House votes to avert an economically disastrous default — not to mention passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate — has increasingly shaped the White House’s negotiating strategy. Aides have hardened their stance against certain GOP-proposed budget cuts and social welfare restrictions for fear of sparking a revolt among Democrats they may ultimately need to support a deal.
“It’s important that we don’t take steps back from the very strong agenda that the president himself shepherded and led over the last two years,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “What I’ve said to Leader [Hakeem] Jeffries, and to the White House, is the president has to remember that whatever he negotiates has to go through both chambers.”
The White House has rebuffed Republican efforts to expand work requirements for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as well as attempts to impose substantial spending cuts to a range of domestic programs, two other people familiar with the discussions said. Those disagreements contributed to the breakdown of talks last weekend and continue to complicate negotiations, with Republicans on Tuesday accusing the administration of a “lack of urgency.”
But the White House has pushed back, with officials reminding Republicans that any deal McCarthy strikes will need to bring along the dozens of Democratic votes he’ll need to get it through his chamber.
“The unanswered question is whether McCarthy can rally a majority for whatever deal he cuts when you know the big items are off the table,” said one adviser close to the White House. “They don’t have clarity on their side.”
McCarthy has continually urged his caucus to stay united in the debt ceiling fight, noting that their hand has been strengthened by their ability to pass a bill last month that lifted the borrowing cap in exchange for far-reaching spending cuts. But he also knows that a portion of GOP members will vote against any compromise bill, having called the legislation they passed the floor, not the ceiling.
The speaker has operated by the so-called Hastert rule, which says that only legislation with support from the majority will see the floor. With Republicans owning 222 votes, that means he can afford to lose 110 members.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday reiterated that a debt ceiling agreement would need to be something that “Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate will be able to vote on and agree on.”
Rank-and-file Democrats acknowledge that they will be under enormous political pressure to support any deal backed by Biden, lest they leave the economy and the president of their own party out to dry.
“If Joe Biden has his name on it, Democrats are going to vote for it,” said one House Democrat granted anonymity to discuss the private political calculations of members.
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Still, Democrats preparing for the sprint to pass an eventual deal ahead of the June 1 debt ceiling deadline anticipate that McCarthy could lose a substantial chunk of his conservative wing — leaving it up to Democrats to supply somewhere between 50 and 100 votes of their own.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a former longtime Democratic whip, called the upper-bound projection of 100 Democrats a reasonable estimate, but cautioned that Jeffries needs to be part of the agreement.
“They’re going to need our votes,” he said. “If Jeffries and Biden reach an agreement, I think we’ll pass it.”
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Whipping a divisive debt agreement would serve as an early, significant test for the new trio of House Democratic leaders. Jeffries, just five months into his tenure atop the conference, has fielded a range of concerns from his members over the direction of the negotiations — and what concessions the White House may ultimately need them to support.
On Monday, Jeffries alluded to some objections by Democrats over the potential for a compromise to include budget cuts, calling a White House-proposed spending freeze “an inherently reasonable position” yet one “many in our party might even be uncomfortable with.”
When asked whether she could deliver the votes for a Biden-approved deal, House Democratic whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) said only: “We are going to do everything that we can to make sure the American people understand the lose-lose proposition that Republicans have forced them into.”
Democratic moderates belonging to the Problem Solvers Caucus, Blue Dog Coalition and the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition are usually the first place to seek votes in a bipartisan plan. But the more votes Democrats need to produce, the further they’d have to reach into their progressive wing, where members are already opposed to several key policies under discussion.
“The voters gave us a divided Congress, divided control,” said Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, one of the House’s most conservative Democrats. “Usually, when you have a bipartisan agreement, what that means is that the farthest elements of both caucuses don’t like it – and that’s just the nature of things.”
White House officials have largely brushed off progressive criticism of their negotiating strategy, privately believing that the terms of any compromise will be far better than the left’s worst fears, the people familiar with the matter said. But aides have recently taken steps to assure lawmakers they’re not taking votes for granted, briefing Senate Democrats earlier this week on the parameters of the negotiation and keeping in close touch with key House members, including progressives.
Jayapal said her Congressional Progressive Caucus — which counts 101 House Democrats as members — strongly opposes the inclusion of work requirements, permitting reform and spending cuts, all of which are under consideration.
“At the end of the day, we will make our own decisions about what deal is presented, but there will be a huge backlash, even if it’s a bad deal that could pass” the House, Jayapal said.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), agreed. “It’s going to be a problem,” she said of the inclusion of spending caps and work requirements. The backlash, she said, “would be significant.”
Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, which includes 56 House members, also spoke with White House negotiators over the weekend to emphasize the group’s opposition to work requirements. He said in an interview he came away feeling like “they heard us very clearly.”
Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.
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