House Republican leaders are charging ahead with plans to vote on their debt ceiling package as soon as Wednesday, even though it is far from clear whether they have the votes to pass it.
The strategy sets up a potential game of high-stakes chicken between Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and a number of holdouts in his conference who have gripes about the legislation to raise the debt ceiling and steeply cut federal spending.
Top Republicans expect the drama to go down to the wire.
“I think we’ll be working right up until we vote,” House Natural Resources Committee Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) said while emerging from a meeting in McCarthy’s office on Tuesday.
GOP leaders were projecting confidence. “We’re going to pass it tomorrow,” House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said as he headed into McCarthy’s office later on Tuesday.
Other members of leadership acknowledged it was unclear what day the bill might pass.
Dissenters include conservatives seeking stricter work requirements for federal benefits; moderates opposed to cuts in green energy subsidies popular with their constituents; and midwestern Republicans wary of reductions in ethanol subsidies that benefit their districts.
The group of objectors, though relatively small, is sizable enough to kill the legislation given the Republicans’ slim House majority. Leaders can afford to lose just four GOP votes and retain a 218-vote majority, sending a signal to President Biden on their position on debt limit demands.
Leaders were meeting with key Republican holdouts on Tuesday to try to win their support.
Iowa Reps. Randy Feenstra and Ashley Hinson — for whom ethanol is a major political issue — were tight-lipped when they left McCarthy’s office.
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), an architect of the bill, was spotted heading into the office of Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who opposes cuts to green energy tax credits but also thinks the overall cuts to spending are not aggressive enough.
Even as they crack the whip, GOP leaders have so far refused to amend the 320-page “Limit, Save, Grow Act” released last week in order to appease the skeptics.
“We’re done negotiating, and we’re gonna get this bill through,” said House GOP Conference Vice Chair Mike Johnson (La.). “I think we’re close.”
GOP absences are further complicating the timing and whip count for the bill. Johnson said Republicans are expecting two absences on Thursday and at least one on Wednesday and Friday.
The bill combines a $1.5 trillion debt ceiling hike with cuts to federal programs and the elimination of numerous programs championed by Biden, including efforts to fight climate change, expand health coverage, forgive college debt and empower the IRS to retrieve unpaid taxes.
The Congressional Budget Office said on Tuesday that the bill would reduce budget deficits by about $4.8 trillion over a decade.
The legislation is McCarthy’s most consequential test to date as he aims to use GOP support for the debt-ceiling increase as leverage to drag Biden and Senate Democrats to the negotiating table on the separate spending cuts. The risk is that the GOP gets blamed for economic calamity if no debt ceiling hike is passed and the economy suffers.
The bill is dead-on-arrival in a Senate controlled by Democrats, but would serve as an important bargaining chip in the partisan fight over the size and scope of federal spending and how aggressively to attack deficits during the budget debate later in the year.
But GOP leaders only get the chip if they can rally their own troops behind the bill.
Increased work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs are another sticking point.
“An essential element to get my vote for any increase in the debt limit would be enacting work requirements starting in fiscal year 2024 – NOT 2025 as the legislation is currently written,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) warned on Twitter.
“Otherwise, it’s a no vote from me.”
House Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry (R-Pa.) also said he would like to see stricter work requirements, but would not explicitly say he is opposed to the bill as-is, saying things are “potentially evolving.”
“I want to see people going to work like more than just a hobby,” Perry said.
Some hardliners want work requirements upped from 20 hours per week, with one alternative being 30 hours per week.
Midwestern representatives in corn-producing states are concerned about provisions eliminating incentives for ethanol and biofuels.
Leadership can argue that many of those members already voted against the Inflation Reduction Act that created those incentives. But many Republicans — despite voting against the legislation — have championed individual pieces of it.
The GOP votes in question also include first-term members who were not around in the last Congress.
In a recognition of those concerns, first-term Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wis.) proposed an amendment to the bill on Tuesday to strike sections that repeal tax credits for ethanol fuels and nuclear power, among other tax credit repeals.
“I support an all-the-above approach to American energy, and my amendment would protect the environment as well as rural Americans who rely on ethanol tax credits, nuclear power, and electrical co-ops to fuel their livelihoods and power their communities,” Orden said in a statement.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Kay Granger (R-Texas), though, said that green energy tax incentives are not the biggest sticking point.
Other right-wing Republicans who have expressed opposition to raising the debt limit at all also pose a problem for leadership.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) is leaning against the legislation, his office said Tuesday. Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) said Tuesday evening he was a “no” vote.
Leadership has had some success in wooing hardline conservatives, however.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who won a seat on the influential House Rules Committee after he had opposed McCarthy’s Speakership over process demands, wrote in a Federalist op-ed on Tuesday that Republicans should support the GOP plan.
And Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who was like Roy was involved in negotiations last week to include repeals of clean energy tax credits and an IRS funding boost in the bill, indicated last week that he was leaning in favor of it.
Roy and Good were involved in negotiations on a framework for the legislation that McCarthy presented to the conference last week. Additions included repealing a boost in IRS funding and clean energy tax credits.
Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the influential conservative think tank, also urged support for the legislation on Tuesday, announcing it will add the bill to its key vote scorecard.