In the realm of politics, the adage “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” has proven to be a guiding principle for Kevin McCarthy. Despite facing skepticism and doubt, the Speaker of the House has managed to rise above the challenges posed by the debt ceiling negotiations, emerging as a unifying figure within the diverse Republican political landscape.
In January 2023, all eyes were on Kevin McCarthy, looking at one of the thinnest majorities in modern history. Not since the days of John Nance Garner, a Democrat who grappled with a similar situation in 1931, had the Speaker of the House faced such daunting odds. The Republicans had a bumpy start, prompting pundits and analysts alike to foresee a Congress riddled with dysfunction.
On the Wednesday evening of May 28, 2023, with the momentous vote on the debt ceiling looming, Kevin McCarthy made his way into the halls of the House chamber.
Dressed in a dark blue suit, he directed his attention towards the podium where, in a few minutes, he would proclaim, “I will never give up on you, the American people.” As he finished the speech on the House floor, McCarthy fist bumped the House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.). McCarthy had the votes.
With a 314-117 vote margin, the “Fiscal Responsibility Act” has secured its place in the annals of legislative history.
During the late-night press conference after the debt ceiling vote held in the Rayburn room, I asked McCarthy about his pledge to stand by the American people.
I posed the question, “You said that you won’t give up on the American people, what exactly do you mean by that? President Biden said the other day that you ‘kept your word,’ that you ‘did what you said you would do’. How do you respond to that? How do you see your role as Speaker of the House going forward?”
“When I talk about the American people,” Speaker McCarthy began, “I talk about, we’re not going to stop until we make your street safe. We’re not going to stop until we make sure the border is secure. We’re not going to stop until we get the rest of the IRS agents repealed. We are not going to stop until we put ourselves on a path where a new child born in America is not given a $95,000 bill. We’re going to make our economy stronger,” he told me.
The California Republican, once mired in disappointment, unable to gather his caucus’s support to become the Speaker of the House, was now experiencing a triumphant moment. McCarthy characterized the debt ceiling vote as an event of utmost significance, proclaiming it to be “One of the best nights since I’ve been here.”
President Biden: McCarthy kept his word
The members of the Republican Party commended McCarthy for his “transformational” leadership as the unifier-in-chief. Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), who Speaker McCarthy picked to be on the negotiations team and help secure the Republican votes, said that under McCarthy’s stewardship, “This is gonna be a transformational Congress.”
President Biden, in two distinct instances, acknowledged that McCarthy “kept his word.” During a national address from the Oval Office on the evening of June 2, 2023, Biden commended McCarthy for his bipartisan efforts.
“I want to commend Speaker McCarthy. You know, he and I, and our teams, we were able to get along and get things done. We were straightforward with one another, completely honest with one another, and respectful with one another. Both sides operated in good faith. Both sides kept their word,” said Biden.
During Memorial Day weekend, standing in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, President Biden was praising the Speaker of the House for his sincere and principled approach to the bipartisan budget agreement aimed at preventing a default. Biden, unaccustomed to expressing admiration for Republicans since Trump assumed office, acknowledged McCarthy’s commitment to his word.
“I think he negotiated with me in good faith. He kept his word. He said what he would do. He did what he said he would do.”
During the weeks preceding the monumental proclamation of “we have a deal,” Speaker McCarthy made an attempt to portray himself as a transcendent figure, capable of bridging the gap between factions in the Republican Party. Nonetheless, he faced criticism for not garnering more Republican votes to pass the bill.
“Every day I can wake up and improve. There are so many times I stumble as we go,” reflected McCarthy, acknowledging the challenge of keeping his full conference informed during negotiations. “Because as we do, you all leak it. You can’t negotiate once you leak, so something blows something else up,” he remarked.
“I don’t think we were ever going to get everybody,” said McCarthy, citing Andy Biggs and Matt Gaetz, who never voted for the debt ceiling.
“We have spent four months bringing everybody together. Whether you voted for or voted against it, you wanted something more, right? I can only look at what is on the bill. If I’m going to say ‘this doesn’t have something I want, I’d vote no against every bill. But, history will write, this is the largest cut in American history,” he said.
“Maybe I could have explained it better,” reflected McCarthy, “But I will improve each day. It wasn’t an easy task.”
The Common Ground
In the weeks leading up to the deal, negotiations between President Biden and the Republican leaders unfolded at the White House. Following a meeting involving President Biden, Senator McConnell, Senator Schumer, and Leader Jeffries, the tone of the negotiations showed signs of improvement as the President agreed to a negotiation format that suited everybody.
Standing before the West Wing, McCarthy transcended the usual partisan rhetoric, employing a political lexicon intended to foster cooperation. Following his final meeting with President Biden in the Oval Office, I inquired whether McCarthy had confidence in the Democrats’ willingness to make a deal.
“I think they want to make a deal,” he told me. However, he continued, “what we’ve witnessed time and again, and why we’re in this problem, is that every deal they [Democrats] wanted to make in the past only meant they wanted to make a deal about spending more money.”
During the White House press briefing, I raised a question to Karine Jean-Pierre. “Do you agree with Speaker McCarthy that you have a spending problem?”
“No,” responded Karine Jean-Pierre.
As the deadline of default approached, it became evident that significant differences persisted between the White House and the Republicans during negotiations. As the deadline of default loomed large over America, both Democrats and Republicans found themselves invoking the phrase “common ground” in search of the solution that would save America from catastrophic default.
During the press availability with Senator Schumer after his meeting with Biden at the White House, I asked about his definition of “common ground” and the objectives he and Leader Jeffries were striving to achieve with the Republicans. He articulated that their aim was to find a mutual agreement where both parties could make progress without compromising their core values. Senator Schumer described it as a bridge that places the interests of the American people at the forefront while ensuring that individual principles remain intact.
“What that means is that we will not sacrifice our values. They’re not, they’ll probably not sacrifice their values, but we’ll have to come together on something that can avoid default,” Schumer told me. “Default is a disaster. Full stop. And everyone understood that in the room.”
In front of the West Wing, the Congressional leaders appeared optimistic that a deal was within reach. It was a crucial juncture in the negotiations where a White House journalist, entrusted with capturing the first draft of history, could discern that the agreement held genuine potential for success.
In the process of negotiations, Kevin McCarthy emerged as a proponent of direct dialogue with President Biden, advocating for a negotiation format that would foster mutual understanding between the Democrats and the Republicans. Biden, in a commendable display of open-mindedness, listened attentively. That was American democracy in action with a clear idea among the Congressional leaders for when it’s the time to unite for the good of the country.
Once the deal was made, McCarthy said that the agrement he made with Biden is “good for the American public.” He espoused the idea of working together across the aisle. “You’re gonna have Republicans and Democrats be able to move this to the President,” he promised ahead of the vote.
Speaking of Biden’s negotiations team, Speaker McCarthy stated that he thought the President’s team was “very professional, very smart. Very tough at the same time.” That comment in favor of the Democrats coming out of the Republican leadership was not customary.
In discussing the National Environmental Policy Act, McCarthy, again in a seemingly bipartisan fashion, articulated his grievances about the lack of transformation it has undergone over the past four decades. He presented his argument in a language that seeks to resonate with Americans from all corners of the political spectrum.
“It’s a frustration with people all across this country on both sides of the aisle. It doesn’t matter if you want to build a road, you want to build a renewable energy project, that all gets stopped and studied for years. It’s a frustration. That’s millions of dollars wasted. That is all changing now so we can build again in America, we can make America stronger. We compete with other countries. This is a win for the entire country and for both sides of the aisle,” said the Speaker of the House.
McCarthy: We want to make Congress work again
One of the provisions in the debt ceiling agreement is Republicans saying they want to make Congress work again because he said Americans get frustrated when Congress is not doing their job.
“We’ve watched this place break down where members didn’t have to show up for work,” he said. McCarthy described the particle on the Hill “before we took the power” where the 1000-pages-long omnibus would come at the last moments on Christmas. “Nobody can read it,” opined McCarthy. “You didn’t wait 72 hours and just jam it through and fund government that way. We want to make sure Congress works again for the American public,” he said.
McCarthy contended that the strength of the debt ceiling agreement lies in the provision of clear objectives for the next two years, enabling members of Congress to make informed decisions about their priorities for the betterment of America.
“The difference here is if you don’t get that job done, you shouldn’t be rewarded,” said McCarthy. The agreement, according to the Speaker of the House ensured the functionality of the government, motivating legislators to fulfill their duties.
“This was an idea brought forth by Thomas Massey and I think it’s a very positive idea because what it’s really doing is forcing and it’s giving consequences for members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to do their job.,” added McCarthy.
“This isn’t going to be a Republican or Democrat idea. This is really for America telling Congress there should be some consequences for you not doing your job and now it gives you the incentive. So what you’ll find is Congress is going to work better, smarter in this process because of it and we’ll get our work done,” said McCarthy.
“Everything in this country is not just a Republican and Democrat idea. There’s ideas for America,” said McCarthy.
“I firmly believe there are Democrats out there that want to have their projects built again. I may want a pipeline or road built. They may want a renewable energy project built. That’s a project and they’re both being stopped because of what NEPA and studies are doing. This helps everybody. It’s not a Republican or Democrat idea. It helps the country. The idea that we’re going to make this process work again in approaches that’s helpful to the nation,” said McCarthy. “That’s a Republican and Democrat.”
McCarthy’s statement and his stated inclination towards bipartisanship as the Speaker of the House present a captivating study amid the backdrop of a politically divided government.
“We’ve watched time and again, there’ll be people on both sides who might have a little difference of opinion on that. But that’s helpful,” he said. “I think it doesn’t matter who’s in power, Republican or Democrat. You want to make sure the Constitution works, that the President, whoever it is, be it President Biden or President Trump, can’t go around. This was an executive order that President Trump actually put in,” he said.
“That’s good going forward long term on both sides of the aisle. So I think people will look back and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t get exactly what I wanted. But there’s something in here that shouldn’t be about you, it should be about America.’ America believes that we’ve spent too much. So this spends less. We pull back money. No longer are we going to send American taxpayer money to the CDC global fund to China. I think both sides of the aisle would like that idea. There’s a lot in here for both sides,” he said of the debt ceiling agreement.
McCarthy: I know the country is divided
As the United States emerges from a tumultuous period rife with speculation about the impending first-ever default in American history and the faction of the Republican Party that Trump encouraged to crash the economy if their demands were not met, McCarthy has risen as the leader of unity. A representative of the Republican party who can find common ground with the Democrats.
McCarthy’s public statements, including phrases such as “This deal is worthy of the American people” and “what’s good for America,” are fostering a stronger rapport with independent voters, a constituency that wields considerable influence in the electoral process. While the impact on the Republican party’s prospects remains to be seen, these statements can have a calming effect on a nation that often finds itself caught between the fervor of Fox News and MSNBC.
“Stop going after people with whom you have political differences,” McCarthy stressed two months ago. As he speaks towards the future, a clear theme emerges from his statements.
“Every day I will wake up, try to improve from the day before and keep my eye on what the American people want us to do.”
During the negotiations, Speaker McCarthy acknowledged that there were several instances where the discussions with the Democrtas reached a breaking point. “It blew up” on multiple occasions, he remarked. McCarthy openly expressed uncertainty at times, questioning whether progress could be achieved.
“I wasn’t sure, at times, we weren’t going to get somewhere. There were times that one side would say to the other, maybe we need to give up. Maybe we should have someone different in the room. Maybe we are not doing something that you are not seeing the way we are. But the one thing that happened is we didn’t give up. We believed we could find a place, “ said McCarthy.
Recognizing the deep divisions within the country and within Congress itself, McCarthy pledged to work towards unity.
“I know the country is divided. I watched Congress divided today. I watched my own conference. I will work to make sure everybody comes back,” pledged McCarthy. “It might not be easy, but it is too important to let go.”
As the America emerges from the debt ceiling vote, McCarthy’s “Ideas for America” against the background of the Republican race for the Presidential nominee will be put to the test. “I wanted to make history,” said McCarthy in the Rayburn room.
In a country where the once-vibrant political center has eroded to its very core, the House and the Senate find themselves thrust into the spotlight, tasked with the weighty responsibility of reaching consensus on projects that truly serve the greater good of the nation. At stake is nothing short of the very future of America.