With the debt ceiling victory, Biden's going from strength to strength

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy though is in a very different position

Biden on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on June 5. AFP
Powered by automated translation

The three most consequential US political figures at the moment – President Joe Biden, House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and former president and leading Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump – are all at the centre of highly significant political whirlwinds. But among them, Mr Biden appears ascendant and greatly strengthened in a way that the other two simply are not.

As the dust settles on the highly contentious debt ceiling negotiations that ended up avoiding a potentially catastrophic US government default that would have occurred last Monday, it is increasingly clear that Mr Biden negotiated an excellent agreement for the Democrats. The progressive left is upset about spending caps on social protections and silly work requirements for food and other aid that will undoubtedly cost more to implement them they will save in spending.

Many Republicans are morally offended when the government provides support to poor people who cannot or do not work. It is a categorical, and almost religious, conservative article of faith that such support is improper and socially destructive. Many Democrats believe, on the contrary, that no one in the country should go hungry and therefore support nutritional and other forms of aid for the poor, whether working or not, also as a matter of principle.

So, the spending caps and work requirements felt like a big victory for Republicans and a terrible betrayal to the Democratic left. And the president has promised to try to offset the damage done to poor people by these cuts through executive actions or other measures.

However, while many progressive Democrats in Congress voted against the bill, they openly acknowledged that they were taking a "principled stand" against the cuts but would have voted yes if the bill was in real danger of not passing. In short, Mr Biden retained their political support even though they voted against his compromise.

It was not a total victory for Biden. He was unable to secure any new government funding through increased taxes or any other measures

The details that are dribbling out about the deal suggest that Mr Biden and his negotiators did a masterful job of limiting the damage in exchange for extending the debt ceiling for two more years. The spending cuts or restrictions are much more limited than Republicans are claiming, seemingly as low as a mere $136 billion over its two-year mandate.

Crucially, the president has bound the Republicans to the agreement in a brilliant demonstration of the real "art of the deal".

The agreement strongly resembles an ordinary budget deal under conditions of divided government. But, even though it eliminates the debt ceiling as a catastrophic bargaining chip for Republicans for the remainder of Mr Biden's term, Congress will still have to pass a budget that the president can sign. So, there was always the danger of Republicans launching a new attack on some of Mr Biden's key accomplishments and insisting on much deeper cuts.

The deal effectively makes that impossible by including in the legislative text that defines the agreement a crucial passage that ensures that any future cuts that are outside the parameters of the bipartisan deal must be across the board. That means that Republicans who seek to go beyond these parameters would end up cutting military spending and other much cherished conservative programmes.

It was not a total victory for Mr Biden. He was unable to secure any new government funding through increased taxes or any other measures. The agreement only concerns caps and cuts, and in that sense it reflects Republican sensibilities more than Democratic ones. But the president has cleared the biggest obstacle, the debt ceiling, out of his way at an extremely low policy and indeed spending cost.

Mr McCarthy is in a somewhat different position. He secured an agreement with the White House that reduced and restricted government spending, and he was able to induce a large majority of his party to vote for it. However, the radical right that opposed his speakership bid so vehemently earlier this year is beyond disgruntled.

Many of these extremists are enraged and are beginning to rebel in uncomfortable ways. On Tuesday a rule vote, which is almost always voted on party lines, failed when a sizable contingent of radical Republicans on the rules committee joined Democrats in voting no. It is not a practical catastrophe, but it is an indication that – as many of them are openly saying – the extreme right feels betrayed by the speaker, who they never liked or really supported, and they may be contemplating a scenario in which they bring them down.

In his negotiations to win their support for the speakership, Mr McCarthy agreed to allow any single Republican congressperson to formally set in motion the process to remove him. That does not seem imminent, but his position is clearly precarious.

The third major US political player in motion, Mr Trump, is experiencing a dizzying barrage of good and bad news. His command of the primary voters appears more solid than ever. And as numerous Republicans are announcing their candidacies and joining the race, he's facing exactly the kind of crowded field that is ideal for him. It maximises the impact of his 20-25 per cent unshakably loyal base among Republican primary voters.

However, he may soon enough be campaigning and debating wearing an ankle monitor. His attorneys visited the Justice Department to urge that no charges be filed in the classified documents case, which suggests they believe that criminal charges may be imminent.

Evidence is mounting that he knew he was in possession of classified documents of the most sensitive nature and that he went to considerable lengths to avoid returning them to the proper public repository under the law, the national archives.

A second grand jury in Florida is hearing testimony on the investigation, in addition to the well-known grand jury in Washington. Many implications of this are unclear but the case has obviously become sprawling and strong and therefore, highly dangerous to Mr Trump.

His most plausible defence, that he did not know he had retained highly sensitive classified documents and therefore had no intention of breaking the law, is not going to be available to him. What's already in the public record demonstrates that he fully knew what he had and that he schemed intensely to conceal and retain them.

Mr Trump believes that these looming criminal charges only strengthen him with Republicans. But he may end up fighting more for his freedom than his party's nomination. Mr McCarthy may not be speaker much longer. Mr Biden, on the other hand, appears to be going from strength to strength.

Published: June 07, 2023, 2:00 PM