Top House Democrat accuses McCarthy of ‘walking away’ from debt limit deal

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A top member of the House Democratic leadership accused Speaker Kevin McCarthy of reneging on the debt limit agreement struck with President Biden last month.

Rep. Pete Aguilar, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said that Mr. McCarthy’s push to cut spending by $130 billion in the upcoming government spending fight amounted to “walking away” from the broader deal.

“This is an agreement that the speaker made directly,” said Mr. Aguilar, California Democrat. “And he took pains, remember, to get everybody else out of the room to get to a deal with just him and the president. And now he’s walking away from that deal.”

Mr. Aguliar said the backtrack would be “laughable, if it wasn’t so dangerous” because it heightens the risk of a government shutdown.

Last month, Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Biden struck a deal to suspend the debt limit until January 2025 in exchange for spending cuts. As part of the deal, both sides agreed to keep domestic spending flat this year, while hiking the defense budget by more than 3%.

Conservative hardliners allied with the House Freedom Caucus have forced Mr. McCarthy into a new position after paralyzing the chamber’s legislative process. The conservative blockade went on for nearly two days, prompting Mr. McCarthy to send lawmakers home early for the weekend.

Given the narrow House majority, he can lose only four GOP lawmakers on any vote before having to rely on Democrats.

In exchange for restoring order to the House, conservative lawmakers demanded that Mr. McCarthy rule out using Democratic votes to pass legislation over their opposition — as happened with the debt limit deal. They also demanded the $130 billion cut to government spending in the upcoming appropriations process. 

Mr. McCarthy agreed to the latter. House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kay Granger announced the decision ahead of a planned markup this week.

“By clawing back $115 billion in unnecessary, partisan programs, we will refocus government spending consistent with Republican priorities, keeping total spending 1% lower than if we were operating under a continuing resolution,” said Mrs. Granger, Texas Republican.

Mrs. Granger defended the move, saying the debt limit deal set a ceiling, not a floor, for government spending.

Mr. Aguliar disagreed, however, saying the push for larger spending cuts “could very well” lead to a government shutdown.

Democrats control the White House and hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate. The party is unlikely to back a government funding bill that reneges on the spending levels set in the debt limit law.

“The Senate is going to mark up to the deal that was made,” said Mr. Aguilar. “House Republicans are going to completely make themselves irrelevant, make their members vote on these deep cuts, and have [a bill] that has no possibility of becoming law.”

Senate opposition to the $130 billion cut would force Mr. McCarthy to rely on House Democrats to keep the government open, pass a short-term funding measure, or risk a shutdown. Neither option is appealing to the California Republican.

Shutdowns have burned the GOP in the past with voters, while leading to few victories for reining in federal spending. A short-term government funding measure is only slightly better.

The debt limit deal struck by Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy includes a provision implementing a 1% spending cut if Congress fails to pass an annual budget by Jan. 1. 2025. The spending cut would impact both defense and domestic programs alike.

“This was an incentive to get both sides to work together on a bipartisan spending deal,” said a senior House GOP aide. “Now it could very likely be the best option of a series of bad options that still leaves us on the hook for cutting popular programs.” 

Passing a government funding bill with a large majority of House Republicans and Democrats could put Mr. McCarthy’s speakership in jeopardy.

The Freedom Caucus nearly tanked Mr. McCarthy’s leadership bid earlier this year. In exchange for allowing Mr. McCarthy’s ascension, the group pushed through a rules package that decentralized the power of congressional leadership.

The crux of the overhaul rests on a provision letting any lawmaker force a vote on retaining the speaker. Although hardliners have not expressly committed to ousting Mr. McCarthy, the threat still underlines his standoff with the Freedom Caucus.

“We want him to choose us as his coalition partner, not the Democrats,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican allied with the Freedom Caucus. “We can’t live in a world in which the Democrats are the coalition partner on the substantive and we’re the coalition partner on the frivolous. And that’s what we’re trying to work through.”

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