By LISA MASCARO, KEVIN FREKING, STEPHEN GROVES and FARNOUSH AMIRI (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON (AP) — The default-averting debt ceiling and budget cuts package headed toward a crucial House vote Wednesday as President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy assembled a coalition of centrist Democratic and Republican supporters against fierce conservative blowback and progressive dissent.
As debate began, Biden expressed optimism that the agreement he negotiated with McCarthy would pass the chamber and avoid an economically disastrous default on America’s debts.
“I think things are going as planned,” he told reporters. The president was to depart Washington Wednesday evening for Colorado, where he is scheduled to deliver the commencement address Thursday at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“God willing by the time I land, Congress will have acted, the House will have acted, and we’ll be one step closer,” he said.
Biden sent top White House officials to the Capitol to shore up backing. McCarthy worked to sell skeptical fellow Republicans, even fending off challenges to his leadership, in the rush to avert a potentially disastrous U.S. default.
“Everybody has a right to their own opinion, but on history, I’d want to be here with this bill today,” McCarthy, R-Calif., said as he arrived at the Capitol.
Despite deep disappointment from right-flank Republicans that the compromise falls short of the spending cuts they demanded, McCarthy insisted he would have the votes needed by the evening roll call.
He characterized the package as “just a small step” toward getting the U.S. debt load under control, and announced he would next be working to set up a bipartisan commission to more deeply address budget imbalances.
“Today, America is going to win,” he said
Quick approval by the House and later in the week by the Senate would ensure government checks will continue to go out to Social Security recipients, veterans and others and would prevent financial upheaval at home and abroad. Next Monday is when the Treasury has said the U.S. would run short of money to pay its debts, risking an economically dangerous default.
The package leaves few lawmakers fully satisfied, but Biden and McCarthy were counting on support from the political center, a rarity in divided Washington, testing the leadership of the Democratic president and the Republican speaker.
One boost came Wednesday morning when the bipartisan congressional Problem Solvers Caucus announced its endorsement, likely bringing dozens more votes to the tally.
Overall, the 99-page bill restricts spending for the next two years, suspends the debt ceiling into January 2025 and changes policies, including new work requirements for older Americans receiving food aid and greenlighting an Appalachian natural gas line that many Democrats oppose. It bolsters funds for defense and veterans.
For more than two hours late Tuesday as aides wheeled in pizza at the Capitol, McCarthy walked Republicans through the details, fielded questions and encouraged them not to lose sight of the bill’s budget savings.
The speaker faced a sometimes tough crowd. Leaders of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus spent the day lambasting the compromise as falling well short of the needed spending cuts, and they vowed to try to halt passage.
“This deal fails, fails completely,” Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said, flanked by others outside the Capitol. “We will do everything in our power to stop it.”
A much larger conservative faction, the Republican Study Committee, declined to take a position. Even rank-and-file centrist conservatives were unsure, leaving McCarthy hunting for votes.
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., said after the “healthy debate” late into the night she was still a no.
Ominously, the conservatives warned of possibly trying to oust McCarthy over the compromise.
“There’s going to be a reckoning,” said Rep. Chip Roy of Texas.
Biden was speaking directly to lawmakers, making calls from the White House.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the spending restrictions in the package would reduce deficits by $1.5 trillion over the decade, a top goal for the Republicans trying to curb the debt load.
In a surprise that could erode Republicans’ support, however, the CBO said their drive to impose work requirements on older Americans receiving food stamps would end up boosting spending by $2.1 billion over the time period. That’s because the final deal exempts veterans and homeless people, expanding the food stamp rolls by 78,000 people monthly, the CBO said.
House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said it was up to McCarthy to turn out votes, even as he assured Democrats would prevent a default. In the 435-member House, 218 votes are needed for passage
“It is my expectation that House Republicans would keep their promise and deliver at least 150 votes as it relates to an agreement that they themselves negotiated,” Jeffries said, a high bar for McCarthy to hit.
Liberal Democrats decried the new work requirements for older Americans, those age 50-54, in the food aid program. And some Democratic lawmakers were leading an effort to remove a surprise provision for the Mountain Valley Pipeline natural gas project. The energy development is important to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., but many others oppose it as unhelpful in fighting climate change.
The top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, said including the pipeline provision was “disturbing and profoundly disappointing.”
On Wall Street, stock prices were down.
The House aimed to hold procedural votes Wednesday afternoon with final action expected in the evening. It would then send the bill to the Senate, where Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Republican leader McConnell are working for passage by week’s end.
Schumer warned there is ”no room for error.”
Senators, who have remained largely on the sidelines during much of the negotiations between the president and the House speaker, began inserting themselves more forcefully into the debate.
Some senators are insisting on amendments to reshape the package from both the left and the right. But making any changes to the package seemed unlikely with so little time to spare before Monday’s deadline.
Associated Press White House Correspondent Zeke Miller and writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.