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Stiehm: McCarthy’s messy fraternity house

By Jamie Stiehm - | May 25, 2023

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Jamie Stiehm

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield, California, comes from central casting as a fraternity president. Trim looks, blue blazers, back slaps to the bros and affable, but vain and vapid.

Fraternity parties are known for violent destruction the morning after they run wild. Picture such a scene, writ large across the land, brought by the debt ceiling crisis.

The Republican House majority may soon turn the national (and global) economy into a shambles if it fails to raise the debt ceiling. This bipartisan custom in Congress goes back scores of times over a century. Never has it been broken.

It’s no secret that McCarthy’s divided House is a mess as the speaker spoils for a Memorial Day showdown with President Joe Biden. The Democratic Senate took a “recess” at a critical point this week.

The leader of the free world doesn’t need to be pestered by phony peril, which would bring a real recession.

Don’t look now, but June 1 is staring at us.

That’s the drop-dead date for a Treasury default on paying the nation’s bills. For the first time, Alexander Hamilton’s Treasury “full faith and credit” could be crashed and trashed.

That’s the gun McCarthy is holding to saner heads in Congress, the White House and, ultimately, we the American people.

Your retirement savings, your Social Security, your joblessness and your clean air are at stake, along with soaring mortgage rates and veterans’ health care.

The message is not getting through: This political Armageddon is personal. It will hit home for millions of Americans.

The president should not even have to conduct talks with McCarthy. Congress raised the usual “clean” (no conditions) debt ceiling three times during the Trump presidency.

The reason is simple: to pay the bills — such as the Trump $2 trillion tax cuts — already approved by lawmakers.

Please note, dear reader, that experts say a default poses a “calamity” or “catastrophe.”

The press should not frame this as both sides of a fair fight.

Biden did sit down with the speaker, softening his stance. He offered to freeze spending at current levels for one year.

McCarthy refused that deal. He also rejected closing tax loopholes for the very rich.

Will Biden hang tough? This is not his first rodeo with the debt ceiling, but it is McCarthy’s.

The standard Washington wisdom is that things will be worked out. Biden is a creature of the stately Senate and old Washington traditions.

Quite the opposite, McCarthy is loving every moment of confrontation.

It’s not clear if Wall Street is entering the fray as a major player who could talk McCarthy off the cliff. Sometimes, in an emergency, everyone assumes someone else has called 911.

But we know McCarthy is exploiting an opportunity he didn’t earn through fair play and the legislative policy path. His shocking social spending cuts bill passed the House by one vote — cast by the notorious George Santos.

That is the price for our support, Republicans said, a done deal with no changes.

I read in The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, that McCarthy is winning the PR “strategy.”

The latest twist is to speak of a “Biden default.” Very nice.

This plot was hatched when McCarthy was barely elected speaker in January after the 15th vote, after four days and nights.

McCarthy needed the hard-right Republican caucus, about three dozen representatives, to win. In exchange, he promised to bring the economy to its knees when the borrowing limit needed to be raised.

The Freedom Caucus essentially extracted McCarthy’s pledge to extort Biden. That’s why he’s trying to force drastic spending cuts for every part of government — except the military.

McCarthy is a rookie at his job for five months. At the same time, Biden had to fly around the world to Japan for a Group of Seven meeting with world leaders.

The Freedom Caucus, a vocal Trumpist faction, is calling the speaker’s shots.

House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries is standing behind Biden as making “reasonable” proposals. He hopes to petition an up-or-down floor vote, with a handful of Republicans.

If talks fail, Biden might save the day with the 14th Amendment: “The validity of the public debt … shall not be questioned.”

So there.

Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. Follow her on Twitter @JamieStiehm.


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